When I first heard that Ed Miliband was advocating a referendum on Lords reform it’s fair to say I was more than a little baffled. We’re in favour of an elected Lords – aren’t we? We certainly were last time I checked. Our manifesto certainly called for an elected Lords.
It’s shameful that in our 13 years in government we didn’t manage to bring about democracy in the second chamber, preferring instead to retain the inherent conservatism on patronage.
But on reflection, the case for a referendum on Lords reform is strong – because the case for a democratic upper house itself is strong.
It’s easy to get misty eyed about the Lords after the sterling work of Labour members in recent months on behalf of the marginalised, and in defence of the health service – but that doesn’t mean that any Labour person should join the upper house with any intention other than to eventually abolish it. We either believe in democracy or we don’t – all arguments in favour of an unelected Lords are mere blah blah compared to the arguments for democracy.
I personally couldn’t give a damn about the primacy of the Commons if that primacy is achieved by having unelected Lords plays a role in the making of our laws.
So why not just abolish the Lords and be done with it? Miliband’s argument has been about democratic consent, but it’s hard not to believe there’s a more hard nosed thought process in play.
This is about tactics.
Ed Miliband has evidently calculated that a referendum on Lords reform would drive a wedge between the coalition partners – and could even leave the Tories arguing in favour of an undemocratic second chamber. That’s one powerful brand retoxificant right there. Labour meanwhile would face a relatively easy referendum battle – in favour of democracy, against vested interests, for the voice of the people being heard and against perceived party stooges.
The debate on Lords reform suggests that Miliband is becoming more proficient at boxing the Tories in. After the “omnishambles” of recent weeks, they should be very wary indeed.