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Posts Tagged ‘Lords Reform’

A Change of Programme

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

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.


Belgian Elections Are Barmy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Europe, Events on June 21, 2010 at 10:40 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Let’s get something very obvious very clear before we launch into this idea. The recent Belgian elections were not interesting. Belgian elections are some of the blandest ‘events’ Europe has, thus far, invented. Nor, in fact, is Belgium very interesting. A few years ago, when the world still believed a fake Belgian news broadcaster’s fake report about the country splitting in two, it failed to make headline news. Herman van Rompuy is not interesting. In fact, the whole thing is entirely uninteresting. Why then write a blog post about it?

The Liberal Democrats might look at Belgium’s electoral system and smile. It uses a regional list system, it limits party spending during campaigns, it uses proportional representation and has an elected second chamber, mostly elected, but also with senators from ‘community parliaments’ (county councils to us UK folk) and other senators co-opted by a ballot of senators. They even do the voting on computers. They do use voter ID cards, but this might be the only thing the Lib Dems would object to in this system.

But the ID card might be necessary here. Belgians can vote in five different ways (yes five!). They can vote for one party’s list. They can spoil their ballot paper. They can rank the candidates within one party according to preference, but they needn’t rank all of them if they don’t want to. Or, they can rank the parties in order of preference. And if they’re feeling really bold, they can rank various candidates from different parties according to preference. I wonder how on earth anyone keeps a handle on what the people actually want. At least they kept their ID so they can go back and ask them what they actually wanted if it wasn’t abundantly clear from their ballot form. A turnout of 90% is impressive, but not when you consider that voting is compulsory; Australia, where voting is compulsory also, rarely receives a turnout below 95%. There is a signficant disenfranchisement and/or confusion among the Belgian electorate. And who can blame them?

It all sounds wonderful and very democratic. Of course, Belgium is on the verge of a constitutional crisis as well. Its parties are divided so strongly along sectarian lines that there is a Francophone Socialist party and a Dutch-speaking Socialist party. There are also nationalist Flemish parties, which put candidates up in the primarily Francophone Brussels, and a few small national Walloon parties. This creates a massive problem in that several major parties in Belgium are committed to secession from Belgium. And this might come to a head soon.

In this most recent election, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) is apportioned with 27 seats in the 150 seat Chamber. Behind them is the Francophone Socialist party (PS), with 26, which can expect to be joined by the Flemish Socialist with 13 (SPA). The Flemish Christian Democrats (CDV), previously in coalition with N-VA, have 17 seats. The Francophone Reformist Movement (MR) has 18 seats, and will be joined by the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) with 13. The Francophone Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) have historically aligned themselves with CDV and got 9 seats. The Flemish Interest party (VB) got 12 seats, the Green parties 13 between them, and the Belgian equivalent of the neo-cons got 2 seats. 4.84% of votes went to parties who got no representation. You still interested?

This gives the Flemish nationalists 39 seats, the Socialists 39, the Christian Democrats 26 seats, Liberals 31 seats, Greens 13, Conservatives 2. And we’re all confused about the likely government as lengthy coalition talks begin. The initial moves will be made by the NVA to the PS. Which is confusing, because they sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but it will give them 78 seats, a majority, assuming the Francophones bring their Flemish brothers. In short, a NVA-PS-SPA-VB coalition.

alternatively, the Christians could swing left and form an anti-secessionist coalition. With the Greens, that’s 78 seats and PS-CDV-SPA-CDH-E-G will become the governing string of letters.  If, however, those on the right of Belgian politics were to band together in a Flemish/Christian/Liberal/Conservative joint thing, we would have a 98 seat coalition, so they could afford some abstentions here and there, or not bring the Conservatives on board for 96 seats. This would be NVA-VB-CDV-CDH-MR-VLD-(LD-PP) coalition, and their mail will be delivered to a little-known address in Antwerp.

All this will take months to organise behind closed doors, and likely not last long, and certainly won’t do much, other than, if the NVA do manage to lead the government, move from a federalist model to a co-federalist model. Assuming the King doesn’t die in the meantime and the Senate arithmetic adds up.

My word, this sounds like a desperately productive way to go about democracy. It’s hardly open and accountable. It’s probably not want the Belgian people want. For all its flaws, First Past the Post generally produces stable government with a popular mandate, and does so quickly. It checks sectarianism and nationalism arising in the regions, and only lets it happen if the people do actually want it. It also incredibly simple to understand how it works, who you voted for and what they’re going to try to do. Ultimately, embracing the Liberal Democrats’ voting reforms will turn the UK into something like Belgium. Except the Scotts have a bigger axe to grind than the Flemish, and we don’t have so many ‘big’ parties. It would require the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems to fragment to work, otherwise the BNP is set to do well. It would lead to governments worked out by backroom deals every time, not in exceptional circumstances. And remember, while Belgian politicians bicker, they have their own sovereign debt crisis to worry about; which is now being blithely ignored. Democracy requires that we ultimately swallow some of what we believe to come to some sort of consensus; the Belgian system, and Liberal Democrat ideas, make it so that people do not have to compromise any aspect of their ideals, while making the greyest of washes possible; this only happens because the way the Belgian system works, and ultimately, the way coalition and PR works, is not as democratic as it is marketed.

One last thing: the Belgian judiciary tried to intervene to rule this election unconstitutional. I for one am not a fan of a government seeking the support of its people being ruled criminally unconstitutional. It is truly a sick system that might allow an election to be called unconstitutional. Closer to Benin than Belgium. Happy voting.