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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage