Nowadays, if ever, a promise in an electoral manifesto is seldom worth the paper it is printed on.
The slow but steady inch back of the Conservative party’s assurances to their beleaguered coalition partners continued apace yesterday with the news that House of Lords reform had been postponed and the scheduled debate on reforming the upper house to half its current size with 80% of its members being elected. Despite the fact that it was one of the few consensus points between the three major political parties, House of Lords reform is more than likely to be dead in the water at least until the next election.
One of the key oppositions to it espoused by the right wing press and many of the oppositional MPs is that the coalition government should be focusing on fixing the economic situation. However, as the government are doing such a bang up job of tearing up any ‘green shoots’ of recovery to plug the drain of ‘the deficit’ and eliminating any fair or sensible approaches to education, paid employment and distribution of income with a rampant and destructive glee it may have been wise to give them a new, more positive project to focus on.
The Daily Telegraph claims that public demand for reform is lacking. However polling data released by YouGov suggests that although only 18% of those polls believed Lords reform was priority, 52% thought it was a good idea and only 20% believed the work well as it was and should be left alone.
This shows that there is a substantial if slightly lukewarm clamour for reform even if the Conservative backbenchers do not like it. One of the main oppositional points to an elected house of lords is that it become a largely an extension of the House of Commons and, according to another YouGov poll released this weekend, 64% of those polled believed that MPs were without politics or ethics. Thus the prospect of more politicians filling the upper house fills them with dread rather than optimism about the potential of democracy.
However, whilst some elected members really are the best in their field; be it science, innovation or research, many more are empty shirts appointed to get them out of the House of Commons or into the Cabinet. Then there are the PR appointments, such as the ennobling of Alan Sugar so he could serve as a ‘Business Tsar’ under the last government. Supposedly he was there to advise the government on business but given his company, Amstrad, were known as the producers of cheap and nasty technology before they nearly went belly up in the nineties and moved sideways into property he can hardly be called of the country’s greatest business minds. Perhaps just a good business mind who benefited from his status as ‘that bloke off the Apprentice’.
Then there is the matter of accountability. If lords are appointed they answer to politicians not voters and thus they have little reason to behave themselves. Yes there is civic duty and all that but why kick a gift horse in the mouth? Nothing corrupts quite like money and power.
We derided MPs for being so petty as to claim for plugs and duck houses but, even when we account for those retiring, 1/3 of MPs stepped down at the last election and the rules on what they can and can’t claim have been tightened up even if they are still seen as a bit too lax in some quarters. We also to realise that (some of them at least) where once like us. Do we really think we wouldn’t fall for the lustre of power and greed if they didn’t?
But what about the Lords? The case of Lord Taylor, the so-called ‘People’s Peer’ because he lived relatively modestly and used public transport, who was disbarred in May for fraudulently claiming travel expenses, sheds light on the unaccountability of the current system. Yet, whilst he is no longer a barrister he is still a lord.
In a system where a man who has committed fraud against the taxpayer can represent them without their assent but cannot stand as member of their justice system reflects how warped the situation has become. If peers were elected to serve for a long term period (although I’d say that fifteen years is too long) and could not seek re-election they would still be accountable to those who put them there but would at the same time be less interested in politicking and currying cheap points against their opponents because they would have no need to. Of course, they would still intrigue on the behalf of the party they came from but if people don’t that happens now and would happen regardless, they must be incredibly naive.
So what’s the real reason for the hold up and can the bill be salvaged?
It has been 101 years since Herbert Asquith first proposed the reform of the house of lords and the speed at which the House is being divested of its hereditary peers is going at such a glacial place that it unlikely to be completed by 2025. Now that Cameron has given into Tory rebels on the issue and Nick Clegg has never been able to exert any proper influence anyway; the bullies have won.
The front page of the Times was emblazoned with the headline ‘Cameron Blinked First’ and this retreat is an embarrassing blow to the coalition as the one thing they supposedly agreed on and will serve as another crack in their already weak foundation. While there is no chance of it falling apart under Liberal Democrat pressure whilst they’re still being beaten by the polls, this fresh new U-turn to add to Cameron’s collection makes him look weak in the face of a potential backbencher rebellion against him rather than just his policies.
Angry, safe seated old school Conservatives who do not care about the electability of the party are unable that they got into bed with the Liberal Democrats in the first place and got their proposals even more watered down. They are hoping that they can destabilise the partnership so much this bastardised Conservative government will fall. If they manage to squeeze a slight Conservative majority out of those who’ve deflected from the Lib Dems but still don’t quite trust Labour after the economic crisis then great. If they don’t well hopefully they’ll get a seat in the Lords in a few years and it will be someone else’s problem.
Because that’s the rub. Andrew Rawnsley said in his column a few weeks ago that the greatest obstacle to House of Lords reform lies in the House of Commons. He points out that two former leaders of parties campaigning for Lords reform, Lord David Owen and Lord David Steel, became suspiciously quiet on the subject as soon as they were elevated.
It is not the Lords already in the house that are the problem; its those angling to graduate to ermine. They may not mind the Prime Minister slashing and burning anyone else’s retirement plans but they won’t let him destroy theirs.