Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Lib Dems should not fear a Lords reform referendum

We got battered last year.

So it would only be natural if we were to be a little wary of plunging headlong into another referendum for changing our political system so soon after the public rejected our proposal for AV for the Commons by such a wide margin.

There are now rumblings from Conservative MPs and also the Labour leadership that any change to the Lords should be subject to a referendum. Nick Clegg has strongly argued that this is not necessary as all three main parties were committed to reform in their manifestos and it is also in the coalition agreement.

I'm with Nick on this one. I do not think a referendum is needed. However I am also a political realist. And if enough Tory MPs and the Labour party are determined to force a referendum on the issue then we may have no choice but to allow one to go ahead.

If that were to happen though I think there are plenty of grounds for thinking that it need not go the same way as AV did.

I am sure a putative No campaign is already forming and war-gaming their strategy. I can't predict everything they will try and throw at us (Soldiers without bullet proof vests? Sick babies?) but straight away I can see that one of the main planks of the Yes campaign will be that reform is democratic and those arguing for the status quo are trying to keep an unelected and unaccountable chamber in place. That goes completely against all the democratic reforms of the past 15 years (Scotland, Wales, NI, London and other local devolution). The No campaign will be on the back foot trying to defend this.

Another thing that will come in handy is that there are still 92 hereditary peers in the Lords. This is utterly indefensible. Politicians of all sides regularly talk about how birth should not be destiny. The idea that someone can legislate in our parliament because of who their parents and grandparents were is completely anachronistic. I expect the No side will concede that the hereditaries should go but that the Yes campaign wants "the wrong sort of reform". But they have had 15 years to get rid of them and still they cling on. A No vote would surely give the hereditaries a reprieve as reform went back to the drawing board yet again.

I'm sure cost will rear its head. The No2AV campaign lied about the cost of a change to AV (David Blunkett, one of the main supporters of the No campaign admitted as much at the time) and there is no reason to suppose the No campaign this time will be any different. But what price democracy? The devolved institutions all cost money to run and the Lords is not exactly free at the moment with around 800 members all with generous allowances and subsidised food, drink etc. I don't think this argument will gain very much ground if countered properly. Also, the arguments about the costs of the referendum itself will be the other way round this time as Clegg has already pointed out it will be for those against reform to justify why the cost of a referendum is needed given the mandate is already there.

Like many from the Yes2AV side I still bear the scars of last year's bruising campaign. But it needn't be like last year this time. We have a strong argument to make. We are in favour of democracy and our opponents are essentially trying to prevent that.

We have a good chance of winning and should not fear the opportunity to make our case to the British people.

Oh, and one last thing. For every picture of Nick Clegg the No campaign uses we can use ten of Jeffrey Archer.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

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