Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Lib Dems should park Lords reform. For now.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of electoral and constitutional reform in this country. I have been arguing for years that the First Past the Post system for the Commons is hopelessly out of date and unfair and that there is no place in our constitution for an unelected second chamber. I was delighted when the coalition agreement included action on the latter and heartened by Nick Clegg's various comments in the early days of this government that made it clear he was throwing his full weight as Deputy PM behind it.

But that was then. Now we are in a pretty parlous position regarding potential reform. The massive rebellion by Tory MPs a couple of weeks ago aided by Labour on the timetable has led to a great deal of uncertainty about whether anything like the currently proposed reforms will be able to get through parliament.

Putting aside the arguments for and against (they can be found across the internet not least in numerous posts and comments on this site) I think it is starting to look unlikely that we will be able to get the reforms we want through during our time in government. Unlike some I have seen sneering that it's Clegg's fault for coming up with "bad proposals", I don't think that is true at all. Every compromise that the Lib Dems made (keeping the Bishops, keeping 20% unelected, making the terms 15 years, not allowing re-election) were done to address specific concerns from one side or another. That those compromises are now being used to claim the bill is a "dog's breakfast" is simply a function of how difficult it is to change the status quo when there is such a diversity of views on what should be kept and reformed.

There are noises off that indicate a set of watered down proposals might, just might get the nod from *some* of the Conservative rebels. Perhaps, if we're lucky we might, just might get a small sliver of elected peers alongside a load of appointees from mass membership organisations. Forgive me if I don't climb up onto my roof to sing hallelujah at this prospect.

I think we are at the point where we should park this bill. I say this in the light of the shocking GDP figures for Q2. -0.7% shows we are definitively back in recession and this is now the worst economic situation since before the Second World War. In that context, a prolonged parliamentary battle to try and salvage some vestige of Lords reform would risk looking like political folly and would really not be worth the fight anyway.

We need to focus very strongly on the economy and growth. Our ministers need to fight internally within the government and externally where possible to ensure that at the very least Plan A becomes Plan A+ if not a politically covert Plan B. I'm not suggesting that we should trade Lords reform off in exchange for this, indeed I am sure that would never fly. But we need to make our priorities crystal clear under the current economic circumstances.

I usually despise the phrase "now is not the right time". For opponents of reform it is never the right time. However I am afraid I have come to the conclusion that right now, for probably the only time in my political memory that argument is correct.

For fellow Lib Dems looking for a legacy of our time in government, if we can spend the last 30 or so months helping to ensure growth returns that will surely reflect very well on us.

As for Lords reform, it will probably have to wait for a future coalition agreement. And next time we need to make sure it is worded very clearly to leave future partners no wriggle room.

At all.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.


sanbikinoraion said...

There are very few times when I think you're absolutely wrong about something, Mark, but today's one of them -- economic ups and downs will be forgotten, but political reform will be remembered forever. There's really no substantive reason not to "do both", only a narrow political concern that we'll get hammered in the polls; well, that's going to happen anyway, we might as well aim for what we *really* want.

Mark Thompson said...

But we won't get what we really want. At best it is likely to be a hopelessly watered down version of a set of proposals that are already substantially watered down. And the price for that is to expend further political capital that frankly we do not have.

Better to shelve it and fight that battle another day when we may have a better chance of actually winning it.

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