The battle of the Lords is on

The government is not backing down on reform of parliament's upper house despite the threat of a hug

So House of Lords reform will go ahead. Or rather, a Bill reforming the House of Lords was named in the Queen’s Speech. That doesn’t guarantee it will happen, only that the government will try to make it so. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nick Clegg and David Cameron have both re-stated their commitment to the plan in recent weeks (although the Lib Dem leader naturally does it with a great deal more enthusiasm than the Prime Minister). But rumours started to surface yesterday of a deal to shelve the proposals, which are certain to provoke a massive rebellion among Tory MPs. The creation of a substantially elected second chamber is the price the Lib Dems demand if they are to allow changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries to go ahead. The Tories see the redrawing of the electoral map as a way to eliminate a pro-Labour bias in the system.

If there were to be a climbdown, both reforms would have to be ditched or postponed until after the election. Tories familiar with Downing Street thinking were very sceptical about the rumours of a retreat last night precisely because the boundary changes are so important in Cameron and Osborne’s minds as part of the strategy for getting a majority. That logic appears to have prevailed.

The Conservative rebels are not happy. They are already complaining bitterly about the prospect of weeks of parliamentary time being taken up with an issue that will strike voters as a perverse distraction from economic woes.  One Conservative MP described it to me recently as “a test of the government’s legitimacy” – in other words, if it goes ahead, the coalition will look as if it is giving up on trying to fix the economy and engaging in displacement activity instead. The counter-argument from Lib Dems - echoed a little more discreetly by Number 10 - is that governments can do many things at once and Lords reform only threatens to become a legislative quagmire because recalcitrant Tories want to make it one. Lords reform of some kind is in the coalition agreement, say those who treat that document as a sacred text, so Tory MPs should get behind it. Lib Dem MPs also point out how much marching behind government policy they have done with clothes pegs on their noses. It’s about time the Tories did the same, they say.

But there are a whole lot more Conservative MPs than there are Lib Dems and Lords reform is in danger of becoming a lightning rod for wider discontent with David Cameron’s leadership, much as rebellions on Europe have done in the past. As I write in my column in this week’s magazine, there is a feeling on the Tory benches that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been outwitted in a few too many coalition negotiations; that they are overestimating the strength of the Lib Dems and giving away too much. By some estimations, over 100 Conservatives could rebel on Lords reform. This cannot be dismissed as mischief by “the usual suspects” (although Downing Street is currently deploying that line).

There is some room for manoeuvre. The precise shape of a new upper House has yet to be decided – how many members, what proportion will be elected and by what voting system etc. The question of whether a new settlement should be put to a referendum also has to be resolved. (The Lib Dems think not; Cameron has kept the option open.) But every dilution of the principle of a more democratic parliament will require compromises from Cameron on something else and the boundary changes do not lend themselves so easily to the pick and mix approach. Either they happen in time for the next election or they don’t.

The importance that Cameron and Osborne attach to the new constituencies is in itself revealing. It is a symptom of their anxiety about the next election and the difficulty their pollsters are having finding people who didn’t vote Tory in 2010 but might do next time. It is a sign that they are relying on fairly desperate tactical ploys to collect seats in what looks, on current projections, like being another hung parliament. It expresses the fact that they haven’t hit upon a big, overarching campaign message.

But while the boundary review helps the Tory party in aggregate terms, it makes life pretty tricky for many Tory MPs. Some of their seats will be abolished, others will be less safe and many will be forced to seek reselection in battles with neighbouring MPs.  In other words, the price that the Lib Dems would demand for shelving Lords reform feels much higher inside Downing Street strategy seminars than it does in the parliamentary Conservative party – just another reason why the forthcoming battle will be gruesome.

The House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change