Will Labour kill Lords reform?

The party is tempted to give Clegg another bloody nose.

If, as seems likely, as many as 100 Conservative MPs rebel over House of Lords reform, the bill's fate will depend on Labour. For Ed Miliband, this creates a political dilemma. Should he exploit an opportunity to maximise coalition tensions or should he fulfil Labour's previous commitment to an elected upper chamber? The answer, it appears, is that he will do both.

Today's Guardian reports that Labour will reject any timetable for the bill, potentially allowing MPs to talk it into the ground. However, it will do so on the basis that the proposed bill would not create a 100 per cent elected chamber (20 per cent of members, including Church of England bishops, would be appointed) and that it would not be put to a referendum. This, Labour will say, is another "miserable little compromise" from Nick Clegg.

Both David Cameron and Clegg have insisted that a referendum is not required since all three of the main parties endorsed Lords reform in their manifestos. But Labour can point to the fact that its manifesto also included a commitment to a referendum. Until recently, the British electorate had little experience of referenda. The AV referendum was only the second to be held on a national level (the first was the vote on EU membership in 1975). But that vote - and those on directly-elected mayors - have set a precedent. Once the possibility of a referendum is raised, it is hard to argue that the people should be denied a say.

The Lib Dems, however, will say that this is merely another example of Labour's constitutional conservatism (as previously demonstrated during the AV referendum). If the choice is between an 80 per cent elected house and a fully appointed one, then it would be shameful for Labour to side with the status quo. The priority is to establish the principle of election. A fully-elected chamber is a fight for another day.

Were Labour to sabotage reform all the same, then, as Rafael wrote recently, "an important symbolic threshold" will have been crossed. For the first time, on a matter of substance, Miliband's party will have sided with the Conservatives against the Lib Dems. But for Labour, which is increasingly confident of winning a majority at the next election, there may now be little incentive to woo Clegg's party.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk towards the State Opening of Parliament on 9 May, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution