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