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Liberal Democrats and the Lords

Just over two years ago, I supported the Liberal Democrats going into the 2010 Westminster election and I looked forward to the coalition agreement. I’d broadly have been supportive of the government in our neighbouring country, a test of policy in a country with similar culture yet in many aspects of politics quite different to our own. I’d even have supported most of the ideas in George Osborne’s recent controversial budget, be it the pasty, granny or caravan taxes, as I’d have a strong instinct against tax exemptions or expenditures, so was disappointed with the u-turns.

I’d have supported the AV referendum, and would generally support the need for political reform and renewal of institutions. It’s interesting to watch the debate on the House of Lords given the current debate in Ireland on the future of our Seanad. What was particularly interesting watching the debate last Monday was the small number of MPs from both Labour and Conservative sides who argued for complete abolition of the House of Lords, something I would sympathise with, but would be a major departure in the case of Britain given its traditions of parliament.

The problem of designing an upper house both in Britain and for those in Ireland who think the Seanad should be reformed is balancing democratic legitimacy of legislators with avoiding gridlock between two houses claiming democratic legitimacy.

The proposal in the House of Lords bill was for 80% of Lords to be elected for 15-year non-renewable terms using proportional representation by the list system in regional constituencies, as Britain currently elects its MEPs. The problem with this proposal is that it grants democratic legitimacy of an election, without accountability, as this set of legislators would not face the legislature after their decisions. While the current Lords have never faced the electorate, this very fact means that at least since 1945, they have deferred to the primacy of the House of Commons. The more I listened to speeches from Labour and Conservative MPs against the proposal, the more I felt it was a bad bill that deserved to be defeated.

It’s a very unfortunate measure for the Liberal Democrats to find themselves tripping up over. As a party, they have a reputation for being particularly wonkish, more interested in issues like political reform than the other parties. It seems to me indicative of why they are losing support in the polls and finding it difficult to gain ground. While reform of the House of Lords will gain them credit with their members, and is an important constitutional issue, they should not have allowed this to the one to cause such a backbench rebellion rather than any other proposal. They have lost political capital against their Conservative colleagues, particularly at the backbench level. They put too much faith in the government whips to deliver on this bill. I found myself agreeing very much with Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter last week, finding common terms for reform but identifying the flaws in this proposal, and that beyond this issue, a real priority for the Liberal Democrats should be to work for equal marriage.

The Liberal Democrats can come back from this, but last week showed that while the coalition was working relatively smoothly at the cabinet level, there are clear tensions and resentments below.

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