We should not be surprised that the deepest fissure in the Coalition, the one that makes its fracture most likely, is constitutional reform.
On a smaller state and lower public expenditure, the likes of Danny Alexander, David Laws and Nick Clegg are at one with the Tories. Like them, they are grateful to a world slump to give them the excuse. Their version of liberalism is consistent with deep cuts to national expenditure motivated by philosophy, rather than economic necessity.
On the question of turning the NHS into a social insurance scheme, rather than a free, comprehensive national system, the Orange Bookers have been candid all the way. In his chapter David Laws called for a European-style health insurance scheme, with no limit on private sector provision of health services, instead of the NHS. It presents no ideological barrier to the kinds of reforms Andrew Lansley is stubbornly imposing on the NHS.
On narrower policy questions, from free schools to police commissioners, from the ‘green deal’ to scrapping historic army regiments, the Liberal Democrats have proved capable of enough political contortion, or mock-outrage, to accommodate their Tory overlords’ demands.
The one area where the Orange Book faction, currently in charge of the Liberal Democrat party, has not resiled from traditional Liberal politics is constitutional reform. The defeat of the AV referendum seems a long time ago now. It was an embarrassing moment we’d all rather forget. It was the wrong policy, presenting in the wrong way, by the wrong people. The defeat of the ‘Yes’ campaign has put electoral reform of the Commons back by 30 years. Yet you can’t underestimate the importance of electoral reform for Liberal Democrats. For every Lib Dem, proportional representation represents the totem of political goals. Depending on systems and events, PR would deliver to the Liberal Democrats many more parliamentary seats. In 1997, it could have been as many as 100. Instead of losing seats, as they did at the last election, and will heavily at the next, PR throws them a lifeline.
Nick Clegg is the Lib Dem leader who killed PR. That, along with the forthcoming split in the Liberal Democrat party, will be his legacy. So the prospect of Lords reform was the last big item on the constitutional reform agenda he could march his troops towards. He has cocked this one up too. Partly the mistake was the medium. Nick Clegg is so toxic his personal advocacy of Lords reform makes it dramatically less likely to succeed. Partly it was the system proposed. An A level politics student could tell you that if you have a system in which you have to get elected once, but never face another election for a decade and a half, and cannot be recalled or held to account, it is not democratic. For most peers in their seventies, it would be a job for the rest of their lives in which they could do whatever they wanted. It would be like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but without Nurse Ratched to keep order.
But mostly it was because the Conservatives are as genetically resistant to Lords reform as the Lib Dems are in favour of it. Nearly one hundred Tory MPs defied their own whip in this week’s vote. In public they talk of high-minded principle, but in private their dark mutterings are about slapping down their Coalition partners, for whom they have barely-concealed contempt. Lords reform gives them the perfect chance to remind their juniors who’s in charge.
It’s another one of those weeks when the politics of government and opposition have been confined to the two parties inside the Coalition. Labour hasn’t much of a look in this week, which is probably just as well, given how deeply divided we are on the issue. David Miliband’s speech spoke of his profound disagreements with ‘comrades’ such as David Blunkett. The reason Lords reform came to a juddering halt in 1999, once the bulk of hereditaries had been expelled, was because the Labour Party couldn’t agree on what to do next.
It’s such a bag of spanners that there’s a great temptation to sign up for unicameralism. Sweden, Norway, Turkey, Portugal, New Zealand, Kenya, Israel, Hungary, Greece and Denmark all seem to manage with a single elected House of Parliament. The functions of scrutiny, amendment and improvement to legislation can be done in a variety of other, cheaper ways. But getting Parliamentarians to abolish their own gilt-edged retirement home seems unlikely.
If such a thing is needed, then a second chamber should be small, limited in action, much less important than the Commons, and most of its members should be elected, accountable, sackable and there on their abilities, not because of grubby political pay-back.