Okay, I’m getting confused. Explain this one to me.
Today we get the chance – the historic chance – to begin the process of removing once and for all a totemic, emblematic symbol of British inequality.
Yet Labour MPs seem to be turning their noses up at House of Lords reform, failing to support a democratic change we have been committed to as a party since Keir Hardie was first cultivating his bushy ‘tache.
You can understand my confusion. Last week Ed Miliband said we face:
‘a clear choice: to vote down [Lords] reform, or to back it. We will support reform.’
Amen to that. But wait, what this amounts to is support for the Bill that will wash about the Lords’ placemen and women and usher in a democratically-elected Upper House at Second Reading, but oppose the programme motion which sets out the Bill’s timetable. A classic case, then, of ‘Lord make me chaste, but not yet’.
So Labour MPs are poised to effectively scupper the Bill by failing to back it today, joining with a gaggle of reactionary Tories in the process.
Peter Hain set out the costs of doing so starkly in The Guardian yesterday:
“…this opportunity for reform must be grasped now. Any imperfections can be addressed in the future. But if this bill is not passed, fundamental reform won’t come around again in my lifetime, if ever.”
He quotes the late, great Robin Cook, saying Lords reform is like Waiting for Godot. It never arrives and some have become rather doubtful whether it even exists, but we sit around talking about it year after year.
What are Labour MPs waiting for? I understand the reservations about parts of the Bill, about the primacy of the of Commons, the potential for conflicts between two elected Houses, the value of the current model in providing an effective reforming chamber and all that jazz, but, really, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to enact a change that should have been made a century ago.
Ending our ‘legislature by appointment’ should be an article of faith for every Labour MP.
Quibbling about the amount of parliamentary time the Bill will take up, as some Labour people are to justify their opposition to this Bill, is perverse. It’s not our problem to worry about the government’s timetable and if it limits ministers’ scope to enact other crazy ideas then it’s surely a good thing?
“But no-one’s talking about it on the doorstep” is the other familiar cry from those who seem to want to make Labour ‘the stupid party’ of constitutional conservatism. The public don’t much like international development either. Shall we scrap the overseas aid budget?
David Blunkett described the Government’s Bill as “a dog’s dinner” while John Reid opposes it because he would prefer the Upper Chamber is abolished, rather than accept the current reforms. Both are valid points of view, but save them for undergraduate politics seminars. There should be no excuse for inertia from Labour people.
Right here, right now, we have a Bill that stands a chance of making a change we surely want to see but have been unable to deliver since the very founding of the Labour party.
And on this issue, right here, right now, Nick Clegg is on the side of the angels. While Labour MPs are today poised to trot through the division lobbies with Bill Cash and Nadine Dorries.
Yes, Clegg’s Bill can be improved – and there’s scope to do that – but the trouble with Lords reform is that the panoramic range of options – from abolition through to full or part election – always leads to sclerosis.
This dunder-headedness has frustrated reform for long enough. And we’ve been around the houses on this now for decades. I’ve heard the arguments for reform – and the counter-arguments against – so many times I can now recite everyone’s lines. It’s like listening to some bad old radio play.
With a 179-seat majority all we were capable of delivering in 13 years in government was the rather modest removal of the hereditary peers. And we didn’t quite manage that, leaving 92 of them in situ such was the stubbornness of those preening old turkeys who like making our laws but who wouldn’t, of course, vote for Christmas.
Actually, that’s not quite true. There is at least one election to the Lords. Whenever one of the 92 hereditaries pops his or her clogs the remaining 91 fill the role with one of the other exiled hereditary peers. The Natural Order of Things resumes.
This should make every Labour MPs’ blood boil. Actually it should enrage every democrat too. We’ve spent the last 15 years embroiled in conflicts around the world, telling all manner of countries from Iraq to Sierra Leone how to run their affairs democratically, yet back home we still allow people whose ancestors bought titles which they then inherited to make our laws.
Of course Labour’s positioning today is really all about low politics. The view seems to be that defeating Lords reform by joining with Tory malcontents will somehow start a chain reaction that will bring about the coalition’s demise.
Presumably in order for a Labour government to get elected with its usual (and always unfulfilled) pledge to reform the House of Lords?
This is the logic of the madhouse.
If damaging the government and curtailing its longevity is the main objective, then surely it is better to support the Lib Dems on this? Lords reform is the perfect ‘wedge’ issue between the coalition partners and would go a lot of good in rebuilding a progressive front between Labour and the Lib Dems in the bargain.
Before we are tempted to play silly beggars today – supporting the goal but opposing the means – we should ask ourselves what we are in business to do.
Are we really going to pass up an historic chance to make a change that has frustrated democratic campaigners for a century? Are we going to let this chance for reform slip through our fingers for another generation? If we are then, really, what’s the point?