A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared on OurKingdom last week:
The unprecedented filibustering by Labour peers (or rather more accurately, given the splits between hardliners and moderates about Labour’s ranks in the Lords, some Labour peers) of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is having two unintended side-effects which will be important for the future of political reform.
The most obvious is the way in which Labour’s chosen style of opposition has driven Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers closer together. A more subtle form of opposition might have looked to divide the coalition partners, but repeated late nights listening to barely relevant and frequently repetitive Labour points has done the exact opposite. It has given both Conservative and Lib Dem peers a common source of anger and in the process they have spent large amounts of time in each other’s company, strengthening the personal connections between peers in different parties who previously had hardly even spoken to each other.
As a result, the odds of David Cameron, and Conservative Parliamentarians in both Houses, sticking to the coalition agreement for a mostly elected Upper House – and by proportional representation no less – have significantly improved. By uniting coalition peers in opposition to them, Labour has made it more likely they will stick to the coalition agreement on other matters. And by showing the Lords in such a bad light, Labour peers have also strengthen the views of those in Conservative ranks who think reform is necessary. That is good news for all of us, regardless of party, who believe Parliament should be based on democracy.
Who is the natural partner for political reform?
The second side-effect is a longer-term one and one whose implications are less predictable yet also more partisan. How will the political scene look to Liberal Democrats come the next election, or in a hung Parliament beyond it? The Conservative Party will most likely have won brownie points for being willing to stick through with constitutional reform, even if it is reform that at heart the party doesn’t really like. But negotiate an agreement and the Conservatives will look to have stuck to it and kept on getting people through the voting lobbies late at night in order to implement it.
As for Labour? Labour most likely will look like the party that, once again, when it came to the crunch flinched away from reforming the Commons or the Lords. Not only will Labour have its record over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, but how are those filibustering Labour peers who opposed elections for the Lords going to behave when that reform comes before them?
For two decades now Labour figures have often talked a good talk about new voting systems for the Commons or voting systems of any sort for the Lords. There is a long history of positive talks to think tanks and words in pamphlets and even a decent smattering of commitments in manifestos from Labour.
But each time it has come to the crunch Labour has backed away from actually implementing the fine words on the Commons voting system or democracy for the Lords. It is always not quite the right proposal or quite the right time. That often promised in speeches and in manifestos electoral reform referendum never happened. The Jenkins report was put on the shelf to gather dust. The government review of electoral systems disappeared into obscurity. Those repeated plans for Lords reform never moved beyond stage one. And so on – and that was when Labour had large majorities on its own, able to get measures through the Commons and with the manifesto commitments giving the power of the Salisbury Convention to stop the Lords completely blocking reform either.
What’s preferable: good words or reluctant votes?
So the way we are headed, after all the main promises but missed opportunities from Labour, is that many Liberal Democrats may well conclude that on too many matters of political reform it will never be the right time for Labour and that, for all the Conservative Party’s unwillingness to introduce political reform, when it comes to the big issues it is better to deal with a reluctant but reliable partner than with one who promises so much yet flinches away before reform is actually delivered.
Symptomatic of this danger for Labour is the question of the AV referendum timing. When it came to holding the referendum on introducing the London Mayor and GLA, Labour happily scheduled it for the same day as other elections. Yet many of the same Labour politicians who voted through that polling day as an uncontroversial and obvious measure are now backing a line that tries to claim there is something awful about having the next referendum on the same day as other elections. Have they all really suddenly thought that they got it all wrong for London and now realise that they should never have supported the timing of the London referendum? Or is it that they are just reaching for any convenient excuse to bash another party and back away (yet again) from electoral reform for the Commons?
When something like that happens once, or twice or even three times, you can believe that perhaps it is really that people have changed their minds, perhaps it is really that the time is not quite right or the details not quite there. But after two decades of ducking away by Labour, continuing to believe such generous explanations looks more and more foolish.
At this point, no doubt, some of the many genuinely committed to electoral reform in Labour ranks will be objecting that this is an unfair view of them. But unless they appreciate just how badly Labour’s record of flinching away over two decades looks to potential partners in a future program of political reform, there is no chance of such a future program working.
Take the example of Labour reformer Michael Wills, who recently argued vehemently in OurKingdom against what the government is doing, listing a long set of questions which he says Parliament should have properly considered. Not surprisingly, I disagree with many of his views in that list of questions, but my main objection is simply this: look at the total amount of time Parliament has now spent on the Bill and you see there has been plenty of time in total to discuss all of those questions in some detail. But instead of discussing them in detail, Labour peers have chosen to squander time on all sorts of trivial, peripheral and irrelevant matters.
If Labour peers had really wanted to get those points debated in detail, they had their chance and their time (plenty of it). But they chose not to take it – because when it came to the crunch it wasn’t scrutiny or improvement that came first, it was wrecking reform.
And unless Labour shows real commitment to reform – not just in the comfort of policy chit-chat but in the voting lobbies in Parliament and the ballot boxes of a referendum – the most likely outcome is that Labour will no longer look to be the obvious and natural partner for a third party wanting an ambitious program of political reform.