Clegg sets himself against a Lords referendum

It will be hard for the Lib Dem leader to argue that the people should be denied a say.

The defeat of electoral reform a year ago means that Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords in this parliament. Clegg needs at least one defining constitutional change to persuade his party that the coalition has been worth it. Indeed, he recently heightened the stakes by suggesting that the Lib Dems could vote down the proposed boundary changes if the Tory backwoodsmen veto Lords reform.

The Queen's Speech in May will contain a bill proposing the creation of a new second chamber in which 80 per cent of members are elected and 20 per cent appointed. But Clegg now faces a further obstacle to reform. A joint committee of MPs and peers has unexpectedly called for a national referendum to be held on the proposed changes. Neither of the coalition parties supports a referendum but Labour, however, does. The shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan commented yesterday:

The public should have the final say on major constitutional reform, a position the Tory-led Government followed with the referendum on the alternative vote, and its votes in towns and cities for directly elected mayors.

Today's Independent reports that Clegg will oppose a referendum [which would delay and possibly prevent reform] on the grounds that all three of the main parties advocated Lords reform in their general election manifestos. But Labour will point to the fact that it also backed a referendum in 2010. Until recently, the British electorate had little experience of referenda. The AV referendum was only the second to be held on a national level [the first was the vote on EU membership in 1975]. But that vote - and those forthcoming on directly-elected mayors - has set a precedent. Once the possibility of a referendum is raised, it is hard to argue that the people should be denied a say. That is the challenge Clegg now faces.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.