Last week, we had the first national referendum in 35 years. Ostensibly about the voting system, it was for many of us a chance to change the nature of our politics. Unfortunately that did not happen, and both campaigns played their part in that outcome. The truth is that the public were not persuaded that AV was the answer to the problems of our politics, and we have to respect their verdict.
Although we have to learn the lessons of the referendum we have just had, there remains, however, a significant piece of unfinished business – reform of the House of Lords. The case for this remains overwhelming. I think this reform is part of the answer to how we renew our politics, and it needs to be seen as such as well as in the context of the last Labour government’s record on constitutional change.
Some people seem to want to forget that before 1997 there was no parliament in Edinburgh or assembly in Cardiff. London didn’t have a Mayor. Hereditary peers still held the balance of power in the House of Lords. Proportional representation was confined to the continent. There was no Freedom of Information Act. And the Human Rights Act had not been incorporated into UK law.
We started the process of House of Lords reform. Our House of Lords Act 1999, which removed most of the hereditary peers, was the most substantial change to the upper house in nearly a century, so the argument that we did nothing when we were in government is just plain wrong. We enabled the commons to vote on degrees of election, and the house responded by voting for both 80% and 100%.
Our 2008 White Paper, “An Elected Second Chamber: Further Reform of the House of Lords” set out a way forward that had been worked through with all parties. And our manifesto at the recent general election was clear:
“We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords. Further democratic reform to create a fully elected Second Chamber will then be achieved in stages….. We will consult widely on these proposals, and on an open-list proportional representation electoral system for the Second Chamber, before putting them to the people in a referendum.”
The Labour Party is firmly committed to a 100% elected House of Lords, and therefore what we will look for in the government’s Bill is whether it provides for a wholly elected second chamber.
This is an issue of principle and must not become one of tactics. At a time when people are taking to the streets across the Middle East and North Africa demanding to have a say in who represents them, how could anyone contemplate reforming our system on any other basis than full democracy?
This Bill will be an early test of the Liberal Democrats’ new-found determination to say what they think in public, as the coalition determines its policy. We will all be watching to see whether they stand up for a wholly elected second chamber.
What powers should a reformed House of Lords have? How should we deal with the conventions that currently govern the relationship between the two chambers? I favour the second chamber continuing to revise and to scrutinise as part of a system of checks and balances, while recognising that the first elected chamber should ultimately have its way. How the government plans to approach all of these important matters in its Bill will be critical in determining its progress.