What Lords Reform has done to the coalition's poll numbers

Two-thirds no longer think of Tories and Lib Dems as a "united team".

Earlier this month. Conservative MPs forced the government to drop a motion which would have limited debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill to 10 days. In so doing, they inflicted a severe blow to the Liberal Democrats’ aspiration of reforming the second chamber. Without a timetable, the Bill could be "talked out" by challengers. The Prime Minister has said he will have "one more try" to secure a limit in September but if unsuccessful, it leaves the prospects for Lords reform on shaky ground.

Is this parliamentary wrangling in tune with the public mood, however? Liberal Democrats would argue that, since it was in all three parties’ manifestos, there is to some extent a public mandate for Lords reform. And yes, IPSOS/Mori's most recent poll on the issues does show that around eight in ten (79%) Britons support the idea of reforming the House of Lords at some point. Support for reform is highest among Liberal Democrats at 87% - unsurprisingly - and lowest among their Coalition partners, Conservative supporters, at 75%. Only around one in six people (16%) say they do not support reforming the House of Lords at all, but even among Conservative voters, this only rises to 21%.

Furthermore, previous studies have shown the public has often thought there could be a better alternative to the current system.  In October 1998, polling showed only 20% thought that the House of Lords should remain exactly as it is. Around 60% preferred some sort of change to its constitution, from removal of all hereditary peers – something the Blair Government did act on to some extent - to replacing the House of Lords with a new second chamber entirely elected by the public.  Although even then, 61% said things should be left as they are until the full detailed package of reforms had been worked out.

Desire for Lords reform fits with broader trends of favouring changes to the way UK politics is conducted. In the wake of the expenses scandal, Ipsos MORI polling showed three in four (75%) believed that the present system of governing Britain needs a lot of improvement with only a quarter (24%) feeling it mainly worked well. In December 2010, just a quarter – 27% - said they were satisfied with the way Parliament works.  Moreover, our Veracity Index has shown trust in parliamentarians on a downward trend since 2008. Clearly, a case can be made for reform of Parliament, including of the House of Lords.

Conservative MPs, however, are also in tune with the public when they say that Lords reform is not a priority for the country in this era of public spending constraints and poor economic growth. Very few think it is a priority according to our new poll (even Liberal Democrat voters). Just 7% of the public overall believe it should be a priority, with 72% saying there are other more important things on which the government should concentrate. What is notable is the steady majority across all age groups and classes who think there are more important things on the government’s plate, and most voters of all parties say even though they support reform it is not an immediate priority – 74% of Liberal Democrats, 74% of Labour voters and 70% of Conservatives.

The June Ipsos MORI Issues Index shows the dominance of the economy over all other issues since 2008, with three-fifths (58%) who mention it as amongst the most important issues facing Britain, and unemployment a clear second. By contrast, constitutional issues are consistently amongst one of the lowest scoring on the index. We would expect these trends to continue, despite the column inches given to Lords reform in recent weeks.

On top of this, there is a prevailing view that the government is dealing with the economic crisis poorly. Only three in ten (28%) say the Coalition is dealing with the economic crisis effectively. This is half of the 59% that had high hopes of the Coalition to deal with the crisis back in May 2010.

Supporters of reform might argue of course, that a government and parliament should be able to tackle more than one issue at any one time and this seems a valid point. The problem with Lords reform is that the public is seeing it through a filter whereby the focus is on the dynamics of the coalition rather than the constitutional issues at stake – not, of course, for the first time.

We can at least partly attribute this to low levels of interest and knowledge about politics and parliamentary process; it is hard to find a priority an issue you have little engagement in. Back in 2007, six in ten said they did not know much about the Westminster Parliament, and it seems unlikely that there is great public interest this time in the intricate details of House of Lords reform. This means that it can be the discussion around the issue in the media as much as the pros and cons of reform itself that the public picks up on. 

Perhaps this is why the most worrying polling figure for the Coalition to come out of this so far is the two-thirds of the public (not to mention a majority of Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters themselves) who tell us they think it is no longer a united team.

Gideon Skinner is head of political research at Ipsos Mori

The palace of Westminster. Photo: Getty Images

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue