There is a real danger political infighting around Lords reform may derail the process entirely, writes Katie Ghose, chief exec of the Electoral Reform Society.
Katie Ghose is the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society
There is a real danger political infighting around Lords reform may derail the process entirely.
At this crucial juncture, before the bill begins its journey through parliament, only Labour can play the vital role of standing up for reform and championing the rights and wishes of British voters.
A YouGov poll (xls) published today found 69% of people support an elected second chamber and in fact between 54-82% of the public have supported an elected upper house since 2000.
Despite this public support and the fact MPs from all three main parties were elected on manifesto commitments to progress Lords reform, an unholy alliance of peers and MPs is emerging in support of the status quo, often for tactical rather than principled reasons.
Labour included a referendum promise in its manifesto and is understandably sticking by this, but while a Labour majority government with Liberal Democrats joining the Yes side could comfortably commit to a public ballot, a coalition government with Conservative rebels running amok is an entirely different prospect.
Labour supporters who genuinely believe in Lords reform should be wary of the referendum question overtaking all others and being abused by those who want reform kicked into the long grass.
• A coalition at war over Lords reform 23 Apr 2012
• Tories threaten to ignore their mandate on Lords reform 20 Apr 2012
• Lords big beasts turn up the heat on reform 27 Jun 2011
In this quagmire Labour has every opportunity to be the voters’ voice and point out the unarguable; that if you hold the power to help decide how Britain is run you should be elected by us, the British public.
Not being allowed to elect our politicians is an absurd anachronism impossible to explain to anyone outside the UK, and especially to new or developing democracies for whom the establishment of elected representatives is fundamental.
The government line will remain firm but unconvincing given the unseemly fighting within and between coalition partners.
David Cameron will support reform in the full knowledge his foot soldiers will vigorously oppose it every step of the way; Nick Clegg will privately reassure activists this is a no break deal and in public continue to hold the line that ‘we have more important things to do’.
Labour can take a clear and principled stance, continuing to explain why the chamber should be elected and how this will enhance its democratic role and the collective strength of both houses of our Parliament.
In opposition Labour can expose myths about expertise or independence by pointing out being elected does not conflict with either of these qualities.
It can point to the positives; the opportunity for a reformed chamber to look and feel far more like modern Britain, and it can do what the committee was supposed to have been doing and the current Lords seems unable to do; it can provide objective scrutiny and ensure the bill that emerges is the right bill for British democracy.
This work should come naturally to the party as it is Labour who over decades has consistently promoted Lords reform, engaged constructively with the numerous cross-party processes and achieved critical steps towards the abolition of hereditary peers. It is time now for the Labour Party to pull together to do what it knows needs to be done.