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29 February 2012

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

By Rafael Behr

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.

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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.

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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.