Tory and Labour peers look set to frustrate Clegg on Lords reform

There was further frustrating news for proponents of constitutional change yesterday, as it emerged the committee on Lords reform is to be packed with opponents of change.

There was further frustrating news for proponents of constitutional change yesterday, as it emerged the joint committee on Lords reform is to be packed with opponents of an elected second chamber. Of the 13 peers on the 26-member committee, all four Labour and three of the four Tory peers are anti-reform; it will be chaired by Labour peer Lord Richard, whose voting record is against any elected element of the chamber.

Following the resounding defeat in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, it will be another major blow to the Liberal Democrats – and in particular Nick Clegg – were Lords reform to be watered down too much or delayed too long.

Today’s Times reports (£):

Some Liberal Democrats are growing uneasy at the scale of the opposition in both the Lords and the Commons and want to ensure that Mr Clegg does not become wedded to something he cannot win – particularly after the crushing defeat in the Alternative Vote referendum…

Senior figures in the party are exploring the idea of “term peers”, so that instead of being elected for a single 15-year term, as in Mr Clegg’s plans, they would be appointed for that time. The change, together with ending the hereditiry principle and introducing independence to the appointment process, could be presented as significant reform, although it would fall well short of an elected House.

Mr Clegg’s aides insisted that it was still early days in the debate and that they were pursuing the principle of an elected chamber. “We always knew that this would be a difficult political battle to win,” one said. “We deliberately did not want to curb the committee’s views and have given them plenty of room to debate.”

Last month, a survey (£) by the Times showed deep opposition amongst senior peers to Clegg’s draft bill on reform, and there have been many more stories recently of opposition from peers – including from Liberal Democrats, such as Lord Steel.

Lords reform, however, is not merely a test for the Liberal Democrat leader – but for the Tory and Labour party leaders as well.

On the Total Politics blog last month, Mark Pack wrote:

The fate of the current 789 members of the House of Lords may depend on the future course of the government’s proposals for Lords reform, but so too may the fate of the three main party leaders.

For each of them Lords reform offers both an opportunity and a threat.

For David Cameron the opportunity is to push on with his mission to change the Conservative Party, modernising it in a continuing effort to shed the problems that have resulted in nearly 20 years passing since it last won an overall majority…

Lords reform offers Miliband the opportunity to hold out a friendly hand to Liberal Democrats, to portray himself as a genuine pluralist rather than a traditional Labour tribalist, and as someone different from the Blairites who so often talked Lords reform but never were quite willing to actually vote for it.

Having David Blunkett and John Reid criticise him would do no harm at all in showing he is different from Labour’s past…

The surprisingly large number of rebels amongst the ranks of Liberal Democrat peers, opposed to the idea of elections for the Lords, provides the Deputy Prime Minister with the opportunity to burnish his credentials with grassroots activists.

Many still feel sore about Clegg’s line on tuition fees (as shown by the big drop in his ratings in the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys of party members) but also are angry at the anti-reform rebels amongst the party’s peers.

The biggest threat to reform, though, remains the Commons; as Roland Watson (£) in the Times concludes:

“Tory and Labour MPs are likely to be reluctant to vote for reforms that will diminish the primacy of the Commons.”

See also:

Diversity and democracy: Reforming the LordsPatrick McGlinchey, Left Foot Forward, June 1st

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