Could Tory rebels be unleashed on Clegg's Lords reform?

Unglamorous changes to the upper chamber could end up as a chew toy for frustrated Tory backbenchers

Of the many things a government might want to make a priority at a time of economic crisis and international instability, reforming the House of Lords is an eccentric choice.

Most of the public, it is safe to say, is uninterested in how the upper chamber works. Within the minority that understands the Lords, a still smaller number is so affronted by the lack of electoral accountability there as to want immediate constitutional redress. There is no clamour for a reform, which, as the Times reports this morning, will require protracted trench warfare between the government and recalcitrant peers, most of whom would end up at some stage facing eviction from a mostly elected legislature. Not surprisingly, a large number of ennobled turkeys are against a Bill for More Christmas.

The Times reports that a hardcore of 20 Tory peers are threatening to go on strike - sabotaging the whole legislative programme for the next parliamentary session if plans to create elected peers go ahead.

The reform is only being mooted because Nick Clegg needs - or at least feels he needs - a concrete constitutional reform in his legacy, having failed to secure a change to the electoral system. A Lords Reform Bill is planned for the Queen's speech in May to give Lib Dems some badge of institutional modernisation when, in the run-up to the next election, they draw up their balance sheet of manifesto pledges implemented and promises jettisoned in coalition. It would, in any case, be a purely symbolic victory for the party faithful. No-one seriously thinks the creation of an elected second chamber will earn the instant gratitude of tens of millions of citizens.

But from where the Lib Dems are standing, even modest trophies are better than none. Can they even secure that much? The prospect of a fierce rebellion among peers is certainly a problem, not least because it plays to fears among Conservative MPs in the Commons that the whole issue is about to snarl up the legislative works. This objection surfaced just before the parliamentary recess in Deputy Prime Minister's Questions (the mostly unwatched monthly cousin to the headline-grabbing weekly PMQs session). Back bench Tories have been pestering Clegg on the question of why, when the economy is plainly the issue that must take precedence, he seems determined to waste everyone's time (as they see it) with a reform that is, at best, half baked. It isn't yet clear what powers the elected peers would have relative to their unelected bench-fellows and how their relationship with the Commons would change.

One prospect that worries senior Lib Dems is that David Cameron's relations with his own backbenchers will get testier as time goes on. The warm glow of Tory admiration for the PM's European (non) veto in December has already worn off and there is increasing irritation with the number of concessions perceived to be granted to keep Clegg's party happy. At some point, Cameron will have to find some pressure valve to enable his party's rebellious rank and file to express its fury. What better mechanism than a vote on Lords reform? It is an issue on which most people would expect the Conservative party to take a conservative view and that will animate few passions outside Westminster.

Downing Street could never be seen actively to encourage a rebellion against a government Bill, but Cameron could decide how ruthlessly he wants to whip his MPs in favour. As one Lib Dem close to Clegg put it to me recently, Lords reform could be used as "the bit of the garden where it is safe to let them off the leash for a bit." Essentially, Cameron would put on a show of trying to help Clegg get his reform but would not invest too much of his own political capital in forcing it through an unhappy Commons.

Meanwhile, Labour's position is still officially to like the idea of Lords reform in principle but to sneer at Clegg's plan of an 80% elected chamber as not ambitious enough, although in reality this is high-minded cover for wanting to retain the option of making the Lib Dem leader squirm. So a half-decent Tory rebellion could see Lords Reform defeated in the Commons. The whole thing has the makings of a disaster for Clegg - another "miserable compromise" on a constitutional change that no-one can get very excited about, sabotaged by Tories itching to rein in Lib Dem influence and a Labour party disinclined to ride to the rescue.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.