Some thoughts on Lords Reform
8 Mar 2007
House of Lords
House of Lords
Voting last night on Lords Reform was like being on "Who wants to be a Millionnaire". We started off with some easy questions, such as do we want to abolish the House of Lords entirely, and do we want it to be wholly appointed. Those were easily disposed of.
As time passed, the questions got more difficult and colleagues could be seen consulting friends - do the hereditaries go now, or only when the elected members start arriving?
Having spoken in the debate which produced, for the first time in 98 years, a decisive result, one felt like an extra in some epic movie.
It was clear from the early vote on a wholly appointed House that the mood had changed; some 30 fewer colleagues voted for this option than four years ago, with some 50 more voting against it. For the reformers such as my self, this was good news.
But then there were two bad result; the 50 and 60% options were voted down with huge majorities. (Voting for 50%, something happened which I can tell my grandchildren about. I saw Tony Blair in a division lobby. I didn't see him again)
A tremendous swing would be needed after these votes to win 80%, and we knew that some people who voted for 50 and 60 were at the upper end of their tolerance and would drop out. At that stage I thought we would lose.
However, there were far more colleagues who would only vote for higher options than we thought. They had not been visible in the debate to the same extent as those against reform.
The Liberal Democrats accounted for part of the huge swing we then saw. Although their manifesto committed them to a predominantly elected Chamber, they decided - by a logical process which no one else understood - that this meant they should vote for 100% elected and against 60%.
A large number of Conservatives - including the Leadership - voted the Party policy and party policy only. This was 80%, so they kicked in for this vote. And many Labour MP's want 80% or more, and had voted against the lower option.
Hence the swing and the majority for 80%. In my view, that was the most significant vote of the evening.
The huge majority for 100% then took everyone by surprise. I voted against 100% as I believe there is a role in the Upper House for cross-benchers, former Chiefs of Defence Staff, scientists, senior civil servants etc. So did many who voted for reform.
What happened was those against reform - who operated the voting system with such ingenuity last time - realised that, having lost 80%, the game was up. Their best hope was to give the House not one result, but two in the hope of generating confusion. Those who want the House to stay as it is then voted in large numbers for 100% - while many of those who want change voted against. The strange alliance of the anti's - and the most progressive reformers - produced the large majority for 100%.
What next?
My view is that, had the majorities been smaller, the Government could say that there was not a clear mandate and they could play it long. However, the majorities were not small - they were decisive. Having started the process - White Paper, votes in both houses, clear result in the Commons - there is no reason not to go ahead. Of course the Lords will vote against reform - but we all know that will happen. The principal conversation that has taken place between Peers and Commoners recently has been about the future of the Peers. They are understandably concerned - not only about their own futures, but about the future of an institution which they genuinely believe works well and should remain as it is. My view is that they were made Life Peers and thye are entitled to stay as long as they want to. The process of reform should be gradual - not least to keep continuity and experience. But the truth is that the Lords have lost the argument - it is now just a matter of time. The only way this will go through is if we use the Parliament Act - which required political will. So what will happen now?
It all depends on Gordon. Does he want trench warfare at the beginning of his premiership with all the risks to his legislative programme? Or does he want to be a bold reformer, one who does not duck a challenge and who completes a change which began 98 years ago?
Time will tell.
 
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