Today the government faces the threat of defeat on a high-profile piece of legislation: Lords Reform. Specifically, the government are looking vulnerable on one particular programme motion. Ed Miliband says he supports the principle of Lords reform, but that the government should not limit discussion on the bill to 23 days, which is what the programme motion would do. Mark Ferguson at Labour List, in this article, correctly to my mind, reads this not as an opportunity to beat the government at the somewhat tedious game of Commons divisions, but to stick to principles. He exhorts Miliband to reverse his decision, stick to his principles and vote for the programme motion.
Now, the issue is only salient because 100 or so Conservative MPs are threatening to break their party whip on the programme motion. This means that the government might well lose the vote on the programme motion; and the last time a Lords Reform Bill had its accompanying programme motion defeated, the whole Bill had to be scrapped entirely. Hence Ferguson’s exhortation to vote for the programme motion – while Miliband can inflict a momentary defeat on the Coalition have a tremendous laugh about it, such an action would risk undermining Labour’s commitment to an elected Lords. Ferguson thus invokes the supremacy of principle over short-term political gain to advocate a change of course.
However, this is to ignore the arguments against the programme motion. They centre around the fact that the Lords Reform Bill is a constitutional motion; moreover, it is a constitutional motion of some importance. Previously, bills that made significant changes to the constitution have not been time limited, to allow full discussion on the floor of the Commons, rather than limiting it to a bill committee with a limited timeframe.
This is particularly important considering the range of issues that haven’t been fully discussed. Are there sufficient safeguards for the primacy of the Commons? Ought there to be a referendum on such a substantial change, as Labour have argued? Will the new composition of the Lords secure the same representation for minority groups as the current composition (see, e.g. this piece on ConHome that argues that disabled people will be less well represented)? If new Senators are elected to 15-year non-renewable terms, how does the electorate hold them to account?
These are clearly not specious questions, though they may be deployed speciously against the programme motion. The 100 or so Tory rebels are 100 or so Tories who do not want to see the Lords become elected. Miliband is undoubtedly leading his 250 odd Labour MPs against the programme motion to allow these 100 or so Tories to spend hours upon hours arguing against their government on every conceivable point, creating an impression of disunity in the Coalition and frustrating the remainder of its legislative programme. These 100 or so Tory rebels would dearly like to make life hard for Nick Clegg, who, by abstaining on a confidence motion, made life hard for Jeremy Hunt.
So what really niggles me is that these procedural arguments – though they may be tedious, they are exceptionally important – are taking second fiddle to the realpolitik of the situation. It’s easy to see why. But we simply assume that there are 100 Tory MPs voting against the government solely to spite the Lib Dems, that Labour MPs are voting against the motion simply to spite the Coalition, and no-one is actually thinking about the content of the programme motion itself. There are definitely MPs on both sides who want this bill to pass with proper scrutiny, and they arrived at this conclusion without the influence of realpolitik. It’s doing a disservice to our MPs to assume that all they are interested in is getting one up on one another; Miliband may actually have an embarrassment of good reasons to be opposed to the programme motion while supporting the second reading of the Bill.
David Cameron used the argument in the Commons today that we have talking about Lords Reform for 100 years, so now’s not the time to have yet more debate. We have also been debating the disestablishment of the Church of England, a European Community of Nations, the Monarchy, Ulster, Scotland and many other important constitutional questions for 100 years. That the issues have proved complex and intricate, contentious and important for a substantial period of time is no argument for curtailing debate on the questions: if anything it demonstrates that more and more careful thought is required. Especially when a government committee as promised in the Coalition agreement could not find anything approaching a consensus, and the current bill has been shot down by a Join Committee of both houses.
The instinct – to shut down the issue within 23 days and move on – betrays a government that is eager to get many things done, but also one that does not welcome the scrutiny that should be brought to such an important question. I would speculate that this is because, in our age of 24-hour news, politicians have lost the knack of carefully considering and reworking proposals; after all, if there was a news vacuum, a small change in an important bill might look like weakness.
I happen to be against this particular Bill for reforming the House of Lords. Perhaps that’s why I have time for the procedural points on the programme motion. But I would like to think, if there was a major constitutional change I did support, I would at least have the time to appreciate the importance of the matter and the patience to listen and take on board objections, and not guillotine debate. Debate on the Lords Reform Bill should not be guillotined; constitutional matters are too important to be rushed. That, Mark Ferguson, is a point of principle also.