The Great Lords Reform Sideshow


In the current global fiddling-while-Rome-burns free-for-all , there can be little more fiddly or scorched than the recent UK coalition sideshow Lords Reform.

I watched the welfare debates and some of the NHS debates in the commons. Arguably the most fundamental changes to the structure of our society for generations and most of our MPs could barely stir themselves to attend. Dusty green benches sat unmanned. Enormous cuts went through with barely a whimper.

But Lords Reform? Anything that dared threaten the broken staus-quo keeping them all afloat? Well, it was time to dust off all the doughty old Tories grumbling away on the back benches and form into battalions. LibDems squared up nervously. Labour stirred the pot with a great big spoon of mischief.

And this, an issue that almost no-one in the country cares even a tiny bit about. An issue so self serving, that interviewees on the streets stared blankly and just asked if it would affect their tax credits or the price of a pint of milk.

I watched the Lords Reform debates. Partly because I am a constitutional geek but mostly because anything that even whiffed of constitutional crisis seemed worth following.

An endless parade of Conservative MPs stood in outrage, but on the whole, their arguments were carefully crafted to disguise blatant self-interest. Some argued an elected house would have more authority than the Commons. What if they worked too hard? What if they started to show the Commons for the quasi-dictatorship that it has become? What if they scrutinised legislation too well or disagreed with the Commons too often? Why, we might end up with a second chamber that actually managed to change things!! How on earth would ministers like Duncan-Smith and Grayling and Lansley be able to pass laws stuffed with quiet miseries if the House of Lords was reformed with some kind of legitimacy?

Amusingly, they all supported some kind of reform, just not this reform. The irony that these were exactly the arguments used by campaigners to reject the NHS bill and the welfare reform bill was entirely lost on them.

Seriously, they actually made these arguments. They objected to the lack of expenses and the desperately low salaries (over 30k a year). Seemingly unaware of the satire of the moment, they actually stood up and argued that a weak, floundering second chamber was good for our democracy. With seemingly not a trace of irony, they argued to be left to make bad laws unfettered by scrutiny.

As with most Conservative policies, it rested on a lie. A lie that the House of Lords is merely a retirement home for genteel MPs – a place to sit and snooze with comfy slippers and a sneaky bottle of Brandy.

In fact, this widely held stereotype could not be further from the truth. Our second chamber does exactly what it was set up to do and it does it brilliantly.

Peers scrutinise bills line by line, word by word. Nasty little clauses or sub-sections have no place to hide. Debates in the Lords are mannerly and forensic. The partisan posturing and playground jeering of the Commons is largely absent. I clearly remember the surprise when the welfare reform bill went from the Commons to the Lords. Campaigners could not believe how professional, experienced and intelligent peers were. How hard they worked. How thoughtfully they considered each new policy or proposal.

In the case of the welfare reform bill, Lords proposed 8 amendments. They were measured and fair. They would have made for a better bill. They would have mitigated some of the pain and misery it will undoubtedly cause. They were born of compromise and negotiation.

Then, as many may remember, they were all overturned by the House of Commons.

This is not the way things should be. This entirely overrides the authority of a revising second chamber. It relied on the primacy of the commons to ride roughshod over convention and protocol.

And this is where we are, now, in 2012. It should come as no surprise that our democracy, as with all other powerful British institutions is rotten to the core. The public have sensed it for years. They know that the power of MPs to cheat, to hide behind archaic loopholes, to whip unwilling votes, to threaten and coerce has spun out of control.

And so we will end in stalemate. The Tories will not allow it. They simply will not, and will stamp their soft Italian loafers if necessary. The Liberal Democrats will hold on to the issue like drowning men to a lifeboat, aware that without Lords Reform they having nothing at all left to show voters in 2015. Labour will (and in this case, who can blame them) stir the pot for maximum coalition disruption hoping that at third reading there might be the faintest chance of forcing a vote of no confidence in this government in which we have all lost confidence.

And nobody else will care at all.

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