Update: Since this post was published, the government have withdrawn the programme motion.
It’s no surprise to me to see how angry many within the Labour Party are over the party’s stance on Lords reform. It has been an article of faith within the movement for over 100 years to either abolish or reform the Upper Chamber. The various benefits of a unicameral or bicameral legislature are more for the academic lecture series than they are for this blogpost – but what is clear for most Labour people is that priveledge, patronage, bishops and the hereditary principle should have no place in a modern legislature.
Ed Miliband agrees with that. He said a few weeks ago that:
”I believe that democratic election is the best system for our country and that is why I intend to lead Labour MPs in a vote for the Second Reading of the Bill and in support of reform of the House of Lords.”
Certainly this bill has created some
unholy unlikely alliances. I find myself wishing hoping some Labour MPs vote with Nick Clegg and David Cameron, whilst many Labour MPs will – as Kevin meagher noted earlier – walk through the same division lobby as Bill Cash and Nadine Dorries.
A sobering thought.
I agree with Alan Johnson, who has bravely argued today that Miliband won’t succeed if:
“the Parliamentary Labour Party decide that playing games with the coalition is more important than establishing real constitutional reform.”
The constitutional conservatism of some in the parliamentary party is as surprising as it is galling. None can have failed to notice that Labour has repeatedly been elected on a platform of democratic reform of the Lords – and yet today the party risks losing Lords Reform to the abyss of Parliamentary tactics by voting against the programme motion. As I argued a couple of weeks ago:
”What Ed Miliband proposes is that Labour will both vote yes and no. Labour MPs will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill but oppose the proposed timetable – providing an opportunity for Tory rebels to back Labour and sink the bill. A whips trick. Too clever by half.”
The position of the Labour leadership is to argue that this isn’t the case. A senior party spoke to LabourList this afternoon to say that:
“A government defeat on the programme motion does not kill this bill. It means there will be a proper debate. Ed is clear: He wants House of Lords reform out of the Commons.”
I admire Ed Miliband’s backing for Lords Reform. And I no longer believe that he is trying to sink the bill. But I still worry that could be the outcome of today’s votes.
If no timetable is set for debating the bill then what are the chances of the bill ever making it through the Commons into the Lords? Does Labour believe that the government will allow an open-ended debate on Lords reform, with the debate grinding slowly through the house and clogging up the rest of its legislative agenda? Whilst this would be highly desirable for Labour – as Peter Hain argues, it could destabilise the government’s legislative programme and stop rightwing legislation – is it really likely?
Or is it more likely that Labour could miss the chance to see a bill pass that would reform the Lords?
A flawed bill? Absolutely. it’s not 100% elected, it maintains appointments and Bishops, and a 15 year term seems ludicrous. But the alternative is that Labour could miss – as Hain describes it – a ”now or perhaps never” chance to reform the Lords. If the current bill passes, there is nothing to stop Labour fixing the mistakes inherent in the bill once in government. But if it falls…the issue may be off the table for a generation.
That is the fear. And I haven’t been convinced that it isn’t a real and credible fear. Whilst I hope that the gambit being played by Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan – that the government must allow prolonged debate on reform, and allow serious concessions – pays off. I find it unlikely. I hope – but I do not believe.
If Labour MPs feel likewise – they should do what comes highly unnaturally, break the whip, and vote with the government on the programme motion. Because – on this very rare occasion – it is the right thing to do.