Ahhh Lords reform, we meet again. Back when I was young and still considerably more naive, I got involved in various campaigns to reform the House of Lords to a fully elected chamber. After the mess of 2003, where there were so many options on the table that MPs failed to properly back a single one, I vowed never again. Life is too short, and there are and always will be far more important issues.
But here it is again, shimmering on the horizon. Will it happen this time? I have very strong doubts. It just feels like 2003 all over again, but with considerably more likely to go wrong right from the start.
First of all the committee that was set up to investigate reform is itself split almost in two. Nearly half of them published an alternative report that recommended kicking the issue into the long grass. If anything is a taken as a warning showing just how difficult it will be to get this reform through Parliament, this should be.
Secondly, the Tory grassroots and backbenchers are making this a totemic issue. The coalition agreement is vaguely worded on this issue, with reformers claiming it supports their case and those against claiming it only commits them to looking at reform, which has been done. The mood music of the more rebellious Tories is not to support change.
Finally, the key players all seem to be in a bit of a mess over the issue. David Cameron intimated yesterday that all parties had to come to a harmonious agreement both internally and with each other before reform could proceed. There’s fat chance of that and he knows it. So he can smile disingenuously and keep up his modernising veneer while actually presiding over a continuation of more of the same, hoping that Labour and his own awkward squad will get the blame. Whether they do will be up to Clegg. He will be sorely tempted to give Labour the kicking they’ve been giving him for so long, but in doing so would lose his best shot at reform.
Cameron and Clegg are also slightly divided on the idea of a referendum, something recommended by the reformers on the committee. Clegg dismissed the idea out only for Cameron to say it shouldn’t be ruled out but he’s personally against. Clegg has, again showed his hand far too early, by infuriating his own side to appease the Tories saying he won’t “go to war” over Lords reform. Now that’s a man I’d love to play poker with.
Ed Miliband has already pronounced in favour of a referendum. Which is probably sensible as he knows there is considerable opposition on his own backbenches to reform, but he could probably convince them to hold a referendum and allow his party to campaign on both sides as they did on AV.
If Clegg were a better strategist, he’d agree to a referendum. Unlike AV, this is considerably more winnable and a vote on a referendum would be much more likely to pass than a vote to implement reform without one. Reform of some kind or another was in all Parties manifestos and is supported by a majority in the Commons (they will just never agree on what kind). Having a referendum, with a deadline set by legislation would sharpen minds and mean that the question had to be agreed. It is, frankly, the only way I can see to force a single option through and avoid the vote splitting that occurred in 2003 and would happen again through endless amendments this time.
However, some of Clegg’s reticence is justified. Presumably, a pro-Lords Reform campaign would be run by the same disastrous clique who failed so spectacularly over AV. I have seen little sign that lessons have been learned or that the kind of change needed has been implemented. If there were no choice but to allow them to run the pro campaign this time, then I would be reticent too.
My advice to Clegg is to go for the referendum option. I believe in the end it will be your choice and it will be your best option. But spend the time before the campaign kicks off building a better alliance of campaigners. Ones with real life experience of winning political battles. Ones who understand that there are good arguments to keep an appointed Lords that will need to be countered rather than dismissed. A referendum option can pass Parliament. After that it’s up to the people who want to pass Lords reform to do it right. There are plenty out there far beyond the usual suspects, for Lords sake, use them.