Lord Strathclyde is Leader of the House of Lords.
Whilst the Commons may head home just after 10.30pm on most Monday evenings, the Lords is a little less predictable.
The Lords, unlike the Commons, (rightly) doesn’t possess what some may see as the luxury of a guillotine to end the day’s business. Nor are there motions to programme its business. Labour is still the largest single political party in the Lords. Business is therefore enacted on the basis of consent and agreement between the main parties and with the crossbenches. And so the key to getting a Bill through all its stages in the Lords is an agreed timetable and respect for historical convention. And with the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill this week, that’s where the problem lies.
This Bill, a flagship part of the Coalition Agreement, delivers two key pledges. First, that a referendum should be held on 5 May 2011 to allow the people of this country to determine which system they would prefer to be in place at the next general election to elect MPs. Secondly, that at that general election, the number of MPs should be reduced from 650 to 600. Both provisions relate to the same future election. Both provisions draw on the coalition government’s key commitment to democratic renewal. Both provisions are therefore contained within the same Bill.
Exceptionally in the case of this Bill, Labour has refused discussion about timings. The Bill having passed through the Commons is being delayed in the Lords by a clique of self-interested, go slow Labour ex-MPs. They are determined to look after their old friends, determined to retain the inbuilt advantage for their own party in the current status quo, and determined to fight the principle of equal constituency sizes, and with that, fair and equal votes.
Any chance of a timetable for the Bill to pass through the Lords has been thrown out the window. Backbench Labour peers have tabled amendment after amendment – all of which have to be taken in the Lords – in order to slow progress of the Bill. Their aim is to make it impossible for Royal Assent to be granted in time for the Electoral Commission set up the referendum for 5 May 2011. It stops the Boundary Commission doing its work to redraw constituency boundaries and thereby reduce the number of MPs in anticipation of the 2015 General Election. Contrary to what they claim, Labour knows full well that the two provisions of the Bill cannot be split and therefore their present action would kill it. The only way to counter Labour’s tactics then is for the Lords simply to keep going as long as is necessary, to deal with each amendment, if necessary, one by one.
And so, despite the last government putting the system on the table, despite their last General Election manifesto committing them to it, despite their Leader and members of his Shadow Cabinet coming out in favour of it, Labour is preparing to deny the people of this country their say on whether AV should be used to elect MPs. And they’re denying the people that right because actually, behind all the smoke and mirrors, they’re more interested in denying the principle of fair and equal votes in fair and equal-sized constituencies. And they’re more than happy for the AV referendum to become a casualty in that process.
So, whether you’re for AV or against it (and I’m against it) there’s a principle at stake here – that the people should decide how they are governed and that each of their votes should count the same, wherever they are cast. But once again, Labour is the party of self-serving self-interest. They are the party which knows best, the party which doesn’t trust what the people – and their elected representatives – think.
The Lords will take extraordinary measures to oppose Labour’s misguided skulduggery. The Lords will do its best to ensure that the people get their say. It could be a long couple of days.