All the recent electoral reform ‘hoo-hah’ in the news seems to be related to the AV referendum. We do seem to be forgetting one key thing, however: that the Coalition (or Nick Clegg) will soon be unveiling plans to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a fully, proportionally elected ‘senate’.
This raised a key question for me, and I’m sure for many other Conservatives up and down the country – where’s the referendum, Mr. Clegg?
In the campaign for the Labour leadership, David Milliband suggested holding a referendum on both changes to the electoral system and the introduction of an elected second chamber on the same day. Although it is hoped that the bulk of Conservatives would say ‘no’ to both these things, we have to ask ourselves why Mr. Clegg did not take up Mr Milliband’s suggestion. The simple answer is because Lords reform is more important than changes to the voting system for the Liberal Democrats – this is too big to lose. A fully elected second chamber is Nick Clegg’s baby – it would be his ‘moment in history’.
But why should the Coalition also hold a referendum on this very important issue? For two reasons:
Firstly, there is no clear consensus amongst popular opinion that we should have a fully (or even partially) elected second chamber. That is not to say that there is no clear consensus that we shouldn’t – simply that opinion is mixed and confused and that there is a distinct lack of clarity in this debate. Take a poll undertaken by YouGov (in conjunction with The Constitution Society) in October, for example. This found that 43% of people saw Britain’s Membership of the EU as the most important constitutional issue to have a referendum on (does anyone else feel the urge to quote the Liberal Democrat manifesto right now?) with only 26% selecting House of Lords reform as the most important issue. Take another survey from last February, conducted by The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. It found that only 27% of those asked were in favour of a fully-elected second chamber. Put simply, the general public do not overwhelmingly want an elected second chamber. So ask us, Mr Clegg.
Secondly, the coalition does not – contrary to what many have argued post-Election 2010 – have a clear mandate for Lords reform. Yes, the Liberal Democrats put plans, in their manifesto, to:
“Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House”
But what did the Tories put forward? They said:
“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”.
Now, if these two suggestions were identical then the case for solely parliamentary scrutiny of this bill would be stronger – however, they are not. This gives all the more reason to the suggestion that the public should have their say. The public did not vote for the Coalition Agreement – 23% voted for one manifesto and 36% for another. The political mandate on this issue is not with the Coalition – it should be given to the public.
It is for these two reasons that a referendum should be held on this issue. We are not talking about a meagre political issue here. A move to an elected second chamber would be a major change in the very fabric and nature of our democracy.
So go on Mr Clegg, give us a referendum and let us take to the streets. Let us convince the public for the need of a reformed second chamber. A chamber of expertise, skill and knowledge but with reforms in its composition, appointment and practices. Let’s stop the situation where we would have two Houses of Commons.
Let the public decide – surely that’s a cornerstone of your ‘New Politics’?