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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage