This article appeared on Labour Uncut.
Tomorrow the House of Commons will vote on whether to give the Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill a Second Reading. Labour will vote in favour because we believe in principle that the House of Lords should be democratically elected. This was a commitment we expressed in our General Election manifesto and it is a view we still hold firmly.
But this is not to suggest that this is a ‘good’ Bill. Far from it. The Government’s proposals are poorly thought-out and need to be radically improved. One of the biggest weaknesses in the Bill is its failure to set out how the House of Commons and the reformed chamber will relate to each other. At present, the ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons rests upon the Parliament Acts, a set of ‘conventions’ and the fact that the House of Commons, because it is elected, has a legitimacy which is lacked by the House of Lords. The Government has said that the Parliament Acts will remain in force but that it believes that the existing conventions will simply continue and post-reform the relationship will be unproblematic. This view flies in the face of virtually all informed opinion and it defies common sense: once you have an elected second chamber without clear rules, or conventions, it is inevitable that the members of that chamber will feel that they have a democratic authority to challenge the House of Commons. The result will be that the two chambers could be locked in endless conflict, resulting in government grinding to a halt.
This can only be avoided if the powers and conventions of the second chamber are set out clearly before any reformed chamber is set up.
The issue of primacy could have been resolved if Nick Clegg and the Government had accepted Labour’s offer of meaningful co-operation. Labour believes that constitutional change ought to transcend party political considerations and be consensual in character. Sadly, our overtures have been rebuffed and the Government seems determined to act in a ham-fisted way.
This is why Labour has stated that there should be no Government straitjacket imposed on the time needed to discuss this immensely important Bill during its Committee Stage on the Floor of the House of Commons.
While the principle of Lords reform should not be in question, it is essential that every effort be made to establish cross-party agreement on the best way to bring about the most important constitutional change in 100 years. This can only happen if there is enough time for in-depth debate to take place.
In arguing against the Government’s attempt to ‘programme’ debate, Labour has made it clear that we will not engage in filibustering; this is too important an issue for any party, or MPs within a party, to engage in wrecking tactics. Our approach is to constructively work to bring about a Bill which will create a second chamber fit for the 21st century.
Not only has such an important constitutional change to command the support of MPs on a cross-party basis, it must also have the support of the people of this country. This is why Labour has consistently called for a referendum. Surely if a referendum can be held on AV and on devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the creation of a Mayor for London and for Mayors throughout England, a referendum ought to be held on Lords reform. David Cameron has said that as all the main political parties supported Lords reform in their manifestos there is no need for a referendum. This is a flimsy argument for denying democracy based on a wilful misreading of the parties’ election commitments, including the Conservatives’. The British people must be allowed the final say and there can be ‘no ifs or buts’ about it.
Britain has a strong democracy based on its parliament. It also has a democracy which must evolve to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is what Labour has consistently argued for and why we introduced a number of significant changes to the House of Lords when we were in power. That process of change needs to be taken forward, but it needs to be done though debate and not diktat, and through consensus and not through conflict.