Labour must take up the baton of Lords reform

Miliband should announce a convention – and invite Nick Clegg to join him in backing it.

Labour MPs can this morning bask in the glory of a fine tactical victory. The party's refusal to smooth the parliamentary path for Lords reforms  was one important ingredient in the implosion of the Conservatives' cherished plan for boundary reform. The Tories will now need a huge lead in the popular vote to win an overall majority in 2015 and Labour’s chances of returning to power look brighter.

Labour politics, however, must never simply be about power.  The overwhelming majority of the party's MPs want to see not just victory in 2015 but a democratic House of Lords and an end to the hereditary principle. So the party must take heed of the mauling the coalition's proposals suffered even before their withdrawal. The forces of conservatism and the forces of short-termism combined again and who is to say it won’t happen if Labour returns to power. These proposals didn’t even reach the House of Lords after all.

There were two central arguments which the opponents of reform used to justify the overturning of three parties’ manifestos. First, the "primacy" of the House of Commons and second, the independence and expertise of elected members of the new chamber. The former argument is an issue that matters a lot to MPs but perhaps less to the rest of us.  The latter really does matter for the health of our democracy, although solutions lie less in the minutiae of future electoral systems and more in how we shape our political culture and the parties’ own internal selection processes.

The detail of the objections matter less than this hard truth: Lords reform will be stymied again unless Labour sweeps away the naysayers’ arguments well in advance, without appearing to be motivated by partisan advantage. All the answers must be readied while Labour is in opposition but in a way that cannot be dismissed as political game-playing.  We need something along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which laid the foundations for devolution before 1997. A similar process could encompass a broad sweep of parties committed to reform and bring in non-party interests too, including cross-bench peers. It would take the process of designing a new second chamber out of Westminster, where too many vested interests lie, but not out of politics altogether.  The process should be commissioned by party leaders and include senior politicians, not just worthies who can be written off.

Today, Ed Miliband should take up the baton of Lords reform and announce a convention – and he should invite Nick Clegg to join him in backing it.

"Labour’s chances of returning to power look brighter." Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

 “Given the loss of Scotland,it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing 50 seats in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.