Why Tory MPs must support House of Lords reform

We must be seen to give power to the many and take it away from the few.

At the time of writing, we are on the cusp of one of the most important constitutional reform votes in a generation. Some Conservative MPs might claim they have policy objections to the bill. But ultimately, tonight’s vote is a clear choice: either members are for "selection" or for "election" to the second chamber. Either members are for appointments, or they are for devolving power to the people via the ballot box.

Opponents have obsessed over the bill’s detail – the proportional voting system, the 15 year terms, the 80:20 split have dominated proceedings. But in walking through the oppposition lobby tonight, members would be voting against the very principle of democracy and election. They would be denying the bill a future and denying the House an opportunity to refine the bill’s contents at committee stage. If members support the very principle of elections, they should pass this bill.

As a good Conservative, there are many reasons to support the bill. Critics have claimed it is solely a Liberal Democrat agenda. But we cannot blame our coalition partners for much of the philosophy behind the bill. Elected police commissioners and city mayors were Conservative driven policies. Localism, the devolution of power to the electorate and trusting in the people is part of our DNA. If we condemn the European Union for its lack of democracy, why should we deny the public the right to vote for 50 per cent of our parliament?  It is absolutely critical that we, as Conservatives, are seen to be giving power to the many and taking it away from the few.

Opponents of reform seem concerned that the government will struggle to get its legislation through Parliament if there are two elected, functioning Houses. But the House of Commons is not the government, it is separate. Two elected Houses of Parliament would not defeat any government any more than they do in any bicameral systems around the world. And it would be no bad thing if a stronger Parliament deterred the government from passing ill-considered legislation. As good Conservatives, by passing this Bill, we would also achieve the objective of getting government to do less, but better.

Finally, members seem convinced that the case for "selection" lies in the fact political bias would be avoided. But what criteria would be used for selection? Would membership of a political party preclude appointment to the second chamber? We must consider whether people would represent vested interests – the British Medical Association; the National Union of Teachers and the Law Society are already heavily represented - and embed the status quo rather than offer reform and move our democracy forward. Members must be clear that selection can be negative. One of the previous chairmen of The House of Lords Appointments Commission said: "We don’t want hairdressers in the House of Lords." Selection processes will favour only those who are in the right dinner party circuit, who have networked and are well connected, not necessarily the best person for the job.

Perhaps not every aspect of the bill is perfect – some of us might have liked more radical reform – but tonight’s vote offers us an opportunity to take a crucial step forward. It is an opportunity for us to say that we trust the people, and that we are taking away the appointments system from the Prime Minister and giving it to the electorate.

Peers file out of the chamber of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

Laura Sandys is the Conservative MP for South Thanet and was an international businesswoman before entering Parliament in 2010.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.