Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
Tomorrow night, the House of Commons will vote on the House of Lords Reform Bill. The Bill represents a strategic dilemma for all three main parties – and at the moment, it looks as though Labour, the Liberal Democrats and some of my Conservative colleagues are going to make the wrong choice.
For the Labour leadership, the choice is simple – take a principled view that they support an elected House of Lords and so ask their MPs to vote with the Government, saving it from possible defeat; or take a more pragmatic view that their job is to break up the Coalition and so ask their MPs to vote against the Bill.
You can make a case for either course of action but, with his party also split on Lords reform, Ed Miliband has ducked the choice. He’s going to try to do both things at once, voting with the Government on Second Reading but opposing the programme motion that is necessary to stop the Bill’s critics talking it out. The media and any voters paying attention will take this as further evidence that Mr Miliband is not a leader.
The Liberal Democrats – and the Deputy Prime Minister, in particular – face a different choice, namely how much they are prepared to compromise to get the Bill through. If Nick Clegg agreed to a referendum, I suspect that he would comfortably win both votes tomorrow night, but he has apparently refused to do so. Perhaps he is concerned that a referendum on Lords reform would go the same way as the AV referendum. If it were held in mid-term, there is a danger of that. But if he is prepared to be patient and hold it on the same day as the next General Election then with all three party leaders in favour and the polls showing that, to the extent they are interested at all, the public support reform, he shouldn’t be concerned. Compromise is an essential part of politics – if the choice is a Bill that includes a referendum or no Bill at all, it seems a no brainer to me.
While I am giving free political advice to the Deputy Prime Minister, I might add that getting your departing Head of Strategy to say that if you don’t get your way on this Bill you’ll welch on your promise to deliver fairer constituency boundaries is not good politics. No-one likes to be blackmailed.
For some of my colleagues, the choice is how to vote on a Bill about which they have serious misgivings.
Those misgivings take a number of forms. Some don’t fundamentally object to a mainly elected House of Lords but just don’t think this issue should be on the Government’s radar at the moment. I have a lot of sympathy with that view – despite being a supporter of reform, I wouldn’t be pushing to do it now if we had a majority Conservative Government. However, if they don’t want to spend the next few months talking about this and nothing else, my advice to such colleagues would be to vote for the programme motion.
Others think the Liberal Democrats have a disproportionate influence on the Coalition – they’re fed up with the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the Conservative dog. Again, I have some sympathy but if we’re going to have a row about that, let’s pick an issue like the European Court of Human Rights that a) the public care about and b) on which the Liberal Democrats are on the wrong side of public opinion.
Other colleagues have policy objections to the Bill. Some don’t necessarily object to elections per se but disagree with some of the detail eg the use of a proportional voting system. Many Conservative Home readers will probably agree but if that’s your concern the right thing is to give the Bill a Second Reading and then seek to amend it when it is considered in detail in Committee – if you fail, you can always vote against at Third Reading.
But there are others who are opposed to any form of elections. They see this Bill as a massive constitutional change that will end the primacy of the House of Commons. It is of course true that if you introduce an elected element, the House of Lords will become more assertive. I a House of Lords that was more prepared to challenge poor legislation would be a good thing – the House of Commons’ ability to do that is always going to be constrained by the fact that by definition the Government always has a majority in the Commons. But does anyone seriously think that a House with an explicit revising role that is only partially elected – and over a period of 15 years so that its mandate is always less recent – is going to regard itself as co-equal with the Commons? And even if it did, the Parliament Acts would still apply.
I have no problem with appointing experts to the House of Lords – indeed, under the Government’s proposals such experts will make up a greater proportion of the House. But many members of the Lords are not experts – they are ex-MPs, party donors or apparatchiks. It cannot be right in 2012 for the party leaders to have the power to give their friends a job for life at the taxpayers’ expense.
For all these reasons, I hope colleagues will think carefully before voting against our Government tomorrow night.
And there is one final argument I would ask them to consider. I hope that in 2015, 2020 and beyond, we will elect majority Conservative Governments – but there is a reasonable chance that we will see further hung Parliaments. We shouldn’t be blackmailed into doing whatever the Liberal Democrats want. But if we send out the message that we are not prepared to even consider constitutional reforms which – however bizarre it seems to us – are among the most important issues to them, then we make it much less likely that they will wish to work with us in future. And that would a catastrophic strategic error.