Labour must not play games with House of Lords reform

Lords reform is a test of the party's credibility.

It is hardly surprising that, in its 112 year history, Labour has vacillated on some of its founding principles. Keir Hardie’s commitment to a National Minimum Wage fell foul of the trade union movement’s 1970s mantra that rights at work could only come with a union card. Thus it was that Trades Union Congress delegates voted against a minimum wage well into the 1980s.

Our early allegiance to Proportional Representation only lasted until the landslide victory under First Past the Post (FPTP) in 1945 six years before one of FPTP’s little perversions handed power back to the Conservatives (which polled a quarter of a million fewer votes).

The policy that most clearly connects Hardie with Ed Miliband is reform of the House of Lords. Along with universal suffrage, an accountable second chamber has been the defining constitutional characteristic of a party established to pursue a more equal society.

However, early idealism had to be tempered by the realities of gaining and exercising power; we continued to abhor a parliament based on inheritance and patronage. Attlee reduced its powers, Wilson and Callaghan changed its composition. None of them had the benefit of a cross-party consensus to radically alter this anachronistic institution.

As with the National Minimum Wage (and Hardie’s other great constitutional objective – a Scottish parliament) it was, ironically, New Labour that began the process of delivering some of the party’s original objectives.

Labour’s 1997 manifesto, focused as it was on the 21st century, stated that: “The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”

The “self-contained” reform proved to be the easy bit with 655 hereditary peers leaving the Chamber and the residue of 92 (now 90) remaining only until the next stage of reform.

As a result of that change, parliament convened in November 1999 with a second chamber that was far smaller (and politically balanced) than at any time in its history. The Lords had only 16 more members than the Commons, but without that elusive “next stage” of reform patronage has accelerated to fill the gap left by the departing hereditary peers to the point where it threatens to wipe out the relatively modest constitutional gains those 1999 reforms achieved.

There are now 141 more peers than there were 13 years ago. The coalition agreement seeks to raise the number by a further 203 (to reflect the last general election result). Taken together with the reduction of MPs, there is every prospect that by 2015 the House of Lords will have almost twice as many appointed or hereditary members as those elected to the Commons.

Only two other countries have a second chamber larger than the first – Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso. I doubt if either of those can match the unrepresentative nature of our bloated House of Lords. Some 44 per cent of peers are from London and the South East; under a fifth are women and there are more peers aged over 90 than under 40.

But the most serious criticism of the Lords remains its democratic illegitimacy and its institutionalised snobbery.

The dictionary definition of a Lord is a master, a feudal superior, a dominant person. Our quest for a fairer society can never succeed while we tolerate this embodiment of privilege at the heart of our democracy.

There are few politicians prepared to defend the indefensible. But there are plenty whose commitment to reform acts as a cover for preserving the status quo. Division over the details of reform have protected the Lords for a century and are capable of doing so indefinitely. Now Labour faces a very real test over the government’s proposals for the second stage of reform that we promised in 1997.

A test not just because David Cameron managed to change Conservative policy to the extent that their 2010 manifesto committed to “a mainly elected second chamber” (thus providing an unprecedented consensus and an unarguable case for the Parliament Act to be used to force this through the Lords).

It is also a test of our determination to bring about genuine change in a country shocked by the scandalous failure of its institutions. Ed Miliband deserves to be the beneficiary of a public mood that sees preservation of the old order almost in the same way that the post-war generation saw the 1930s. He cannot succeed if the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) decide that playing games with the coalition is more important than establishing real constitutional reform. The public may well suspect that the aim is to preserve a lucrative retirement home for MPs.

Of the many cross-party attempts to move this issue forward over the last decade, the most impressive was Breaking the Deadlock. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and published under the auspices of UCL in 2005, the report argued for a chamber of 400 members, predominately elected by a system of PR, serving a single period of office in a House with no government majority. It provided the blue print upon which the current proposed legislation is based and of the five MPs who authored it, two, (Ken Clarke and George Young) are now Cabinet members as are two prominent supporters (William Hague and Francis Maude).

As we have discovered with family-friendly employment rights and same-sex marriage, a progressive illusion may not survive the reality of Conservative opinion but the debate that Labour began has shifted public and political opinion to a significant extent. To be critical of David Cameron on this issue at a time when he has led his party towards a position first established by great Labour figures such as Robin Cook and Tony Wright is to indulge in the worst kind of opportunist, tribal politics.

Constitutional change requires a public referendum and it is right that we challenge the absence of one in the coalition’s proposals. It is consistent with our stance on a range of issues from devolution to changing the voting system. The proposal that should be put to the British electorate has been largely determined over 15 years of debate during which necessary compromises have been made on all sides of the reform argument. It is now time to build on that work in order to establish a smaller, mainly elected second chamber which has democratic legitimacy and public support.

This may well be a test of modernity for the Conservative Party; but it is also a test of credibility for Labour.

A 1909 Labour poster shows workers breaking down the door of the House of Lords.

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.