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.

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.