Miliband backs* Clegg on Lords reform - up to a point

Labour's strategy is to avoid intruding on internal coalition grief when the Tories savage another L

An intriguing development on House of Lords reform is reported in today's Independent. Labour MPs might be whipped in favour of Nick Clegg's plans when they come before the Commons. That would be a change of position or, rather, a climbing down off the fence.

Ed Miliband has been wary of throwing the Lib Dems any kind of lifeline. Lords reform has all the potential to be a catastrophe for Clegg. The detail hasn't been worked out properly, the Tories hate the whole thing as, naturally, do peers from all sides who might be made unemployed if the plan to have 80 per cent of Lords elected goes through.

The line coming from Miliband's office has, until now, been that 80 per cent is a shabby compromise on the 100 per cent level that would make for a fully democratic upper chamber. Comparison is drawn with the disastrous campaign to change the electoral system on the basis of the Alternative Vote - another compromise (notoriously once denounced by Clegg himself as "shabby") that failed to animate the passions of dedicated constitutional reformers. That episode ended in disaster for Clegg.

Privately, Miliband aides were more blunt. Clegg is in a hole, they would say, it isn't Labour's job to fish him out. That attitude is now shifting. But not much.

The main thing that has changed is the prospect of a massive rebellion by Tory MPs against Lords reform - possibly on a scale equivalent to the backbench revolt last year on a European Union referendum. Clegg knows that it will be difficult getting his plans past the House of Lords itself, but a defeat in the Commons would be disastrous for him personally and for coalition relations. As I wrote recently, the suspicion among Lib Dems would be that the rebellion was discreetly sanctioned by Number 10. Such is the parlous state of trust between the two governing partners.

The view has clearly been taken at the top of the Labour party that Clegg's plan should at least have a decent chance of clearing its first legislative hurdle. That doesn't mean Miliband wants the plan to succeed, only that he would rather not have his MPs be the direct agents of its defeat. The coalition can divide itself over Lords reform quite happily without Labour's help and Miliband wants to retain the capacity to say, in any future campaign or coalition negotiation, that he supported the principle of a more democratic parliament.

This would be a shrewd move that suggests lessons have been learned from Labour's divided and counter-productive treatment of the AV referendum. The only things the opposition achieved in that campaign were diminishing their own leader's authority (since half of the Labour party campaigned for a "No" vote, while Miliband said "Yes") and bolstering the Tories who were cock-a-hoop about the resounding rejection of electoral reform.

I don't sense much enthusiasm for Lords reform on the Labour benches. MPs on all sides (including some Lib Dems) worry about the potential for elected peers, free from the burden of constituency duties, swaggering around parlaiment claiming authority over hard-working Commoners. The possibility that Labour MPs could be whipped into the lobbies with Lib Dems doesn't indicate much of a rapprochement between the two parties. It does suggest that Miliband is thinking a bit more strategically about how to manage the relationship.

What it call comes down to is whether the coalition will start to unravel, when it might happen and how ready Labour will be to offer consolation. From Miliband's point of view it is vital that, should the battle over Lords reform turn nasty, Lib Dems' sense of betrayal by the Tories is undiluted by equivalent resentment of Labour.

*Update: A source in the Labour leader's office clarifies (or rather unclarifies) that no final decision has been made on what exactly Labour's attitude will be to a Lib Dem Bill on Lords reform. The Indie story was, it seems, a bit of a kite-flying exercise. The plan is still being worked out. Officially, Labour still thinks the Lords should be 100 per cent elected but "nothing is being ruled out". At the same time, my source wanted to make clear that "no olive branches" were being extended to Clegg. Hmm. So as with so many things, this aspect of Labour strategy is a work in progress.

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

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia