I can’t pretend to be sorry that House of Lords reform has been dropped. The Liberal proposals were a horrible mish-mash, ill thought out and with political consequences too awful to contemplate.
To have a second chamber comprising a small number of hereditary peers and a larger number of appointed ones may appear anachronistic but it works. Replacing it with a mainly elected chamber with a fifteen-year term would have been bound to create a confrontational second chamber, increasingly seeking to challenge the supremacy of the Commons.
Unless the Liberals continue their nose-dive in electoral terms for ever, a proportional voting system would have produced a permanently hung chamber with the Liberals holding the position of undue influence they currently hold in the coalition.
If there is to be constitutional reform – and surely it can wait until we have got the economy sorted – it needs to be done comprehensively and fairly with lessons learned from other democracies in Europe and the USA.
In the mean time, here are some reflections on the aftermath of the debate.
Firstly, thank goodness for the bravery and good sense of many Conservative MPs who refused to support Clegg’s version of Lords reform. Most of them were not opposed to the principle of reform but had concerns about:
- the timing – in the middle of a dire recession;
- the impact on the Commons of a mainly elected second chamber;
- the consequences of 15 year single terms for the new form of peers or “senators”;
- the use of a proportional (PR) election system which would give the Liberals a blocking minority and a degree of influence they most certainly do not deserve.
I fear the Conservative Party is developing a death wish over PR voting. It is the basis of electing Members of the European Parliament although it does not have to be – it has always been our choice – so we can’t blame Brussels for that! In Scotland, local elections are all on a PR basis and just about every Scottish council is hung. We will have the Alternative Vote system for the Police & Crime Commissioners elections in November. What all these systems do is:
- use a party list system which means political parties select which of their members should stand and leaves electors having to vote for a party and not an individual;
- expect electors to have varying degrees of preference for a candidate and, effectively, to cast a vote in what would be a second round run off before they know who will be the successful candidates from the first round.
If there is one piece of good news from the demise of Lords reform, it is surely that PR voting systems have hopefully gone on the back burner.
Now for a second reflection on the outcome of the debate. Clegg and his Liberal colleagues have made great play on the concept of fairness as a core principle of Liberal philosophy. In refusing to support changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries, they have continued the unfair gerrymandering that gives the Labour party more parliamentary seats than they deserve. The simple truth is that parliamentary constituencies vary hugely in size, particulalry in Scotland, giving Labour an advantage that is disproprortionate and unfair. The Conservative party has not been good at explaining this in simple terms so the electorate does not understand how democracy has been one-sided for a long time. It is time to show the Liberals for what they are – opportunist politicians with no more attraction to fairness than they have to any other political philosophy when it does not suit them.