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 Images.
Show Hide image

Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.