The Liberal Democrat party are unfairly bullied in politics. Their noble idea of moderating the Tories and improving democracy from government is derided by the Right and the Left and scorned upon by the electorate.
In the Lords reform controversy of last week, the Lib Dems attracted much criticism for “holding the government hostage”: threatening to withdraw support for Conservative proposals if there is no support for this bill. However, unlike other groups the Lib Dems have been honest about what they want in this debacle. Consider the Conservative leadership. It called on the Conservative party (albeit tepidly) to support a bill the leadership itself does not support, simply as a back-scratching manoeuvre. Worse are Labour MPs, who are obstructing the progress of an idea they support in principle in order to frustrate the coalition. Tory rebels, meanwhile, who are against the bill, the Lib Dems or David Cameron in principle, threatened to vote no for a proposal which limited the amount of time the bill can be debated. Interestingly, one of these rebels’ stated objections to Lords reform is that it is wrong to be spending a long time talking about something perceived by them and voters alike to be unimportant.
And of course the criticism is also unfair because clearly, obviously, undoubtedly, Lords reform would be good. The best argument I have heard for Lords reform is the blank sheet of paper test. If you had to design a second chamber from scratch, you would not make it completely unelected, housed by an assortment of groups which taken out of historical context seem simply random: a group containing bishops and those who are only there because of an ancestor.
With the recession, Eurozone crisis and the deficit, it is common to think we are in intensely important times. This is used as justification for Lords reform being kicked into the long grass. However, this presumably is on the assumption that at some point in the future we will be so close to utopia that Lords reform could well be the most pressing thing facing the government. Quite obviously, the economy will always be more important than Lords reform, as will education policy, health policy, foreign policy and most other things which have a practical effect on people’s lives. And yet lots of less important policies are introduced, because government has time to do more than a few things. One such policy of is the changing of boundaries, which Conservatives want for the extra seats it will give them (note that Tory MP Conor Burns claimed the Lords reform proposal was “a distraction for Parliament from important debate and an irrelevance to the British people” – I wonder if he feels the same way about the boundary changes).
The specific proposition put forward has also received much criticism. It is said the figure of 80% elected members is too high, and will force out experts. However, in a democracy experts can always be voted in instead by the will of the people, and with a 20% share they still have a lot of sway. There would be more experts if the overall number of members were made bigger, yet this is unpopular as well. It is also said the 15 year terms are too long, so the politicians will be unaccountable; ironic given the unaccountability of current Lords. If the terms were shorter, it would devalue the reviewing role of the second chamber as the politicians would have similar electoral concerns to MPs. Finally, it is said the new politicians in the second chamber will simply be partisan sheep, chosen for selection by the parties. This is a valid criticism, however many current Lords are party-affiliated, and the aim of the 15 year term is to encourage independence and good scrutiny. There is no reason why it would not be possible to tweak the second chamber in the future, should it be necessary.
Finally, it is said we should have a referendum. I am not sure about whether there should be one – I think it depends on under what circumstances you think we should hold referendums. Bear in mind however that all three parties supported reform in their manifestos. In truth, I worry that an apathetic and slightly vengeful public would be too scared or too lazy to vote for anything other than the status quo. I appreciate opposing a referendum because you fear the outcome sounds like opposing democracy, so this may be a weak argument against.
I don’t think the proposed plan is flawless. Yet it is hard to think of any plan for the second chamber that is. To go back to the blank piece of paper test, the proposed system would be much closer to what you would design than the current system. Unfashionable as it may be to say it, sometimes, I wish we could all listen to Nick Clegg a bit more often.