Whether you agreed with the proposed House of Lords reform or not, one thing that has been outstanding in the past two days of debate has been the standard of the contribution by MPs. Speeches have been lucid, considered and well-argued received with courtesy by those listening whether supporters or opponents. In the absence of most of the front-bench ‘big guns’ and more accurately because of their absence, we have had two days of debate in the House of Commons rather than the normal Rottweilers howling at each other across the despatch box. The result was a climb-down on the programme motion to limit debate to 10 days in the face of a massive Conservative revolt pushing the substantive bill into the autumn….essentially not a crisis averted but a crisis delayed. The government may have won the second reading but it no longer has control of the timetable and there are obvious parallels with the Lords reform proposed by Harold Wilson in the 1960s that failed as the result of widespread filibustering.
Now the party blame game has begun. The Labour Party has been ‘ostrich-like’, for instance. Michael Gove’s defence of the Prime Minister’s authority on Newsnight was combative but unconvincing. It was clear that scores of Conservative (and one should add Labour) MPs were prepared to defy the party whip to vote against a measure they view as fundamentally flawed. This cannot be seen as a victory for the executive however one construes it. It was a victory for backbench opinion, a triumph of reasoned debate over executive hubris. So there now are calls for consensus on reform but David Lawes, patronising in his tone, appears unwilling to accept the argument of the need for a referendum (it was included in all three party’s manifestos in 2010 so there’s no need). This shows contempt for the people, perhaps of reflection of the loss of AV, and is eminently anti-democratic. Yet again we appear to be in the grip of a political elite that knows what’s right for the people and that’s that.
Without consensus, there is little chance of the bill passing the Commons without substantial time being expended and then the prospect of having to use of Parliament Act to force it through the Lords. Now you may argue that there are other priorities than constitutional reform and waiting a few more years is a drop in the ocean given that the process of reform is already over a century old. It is difficult to know how the issue will progress. The current bill will encounter widespread opposition and is unlikely to pass the Commons, however long it is debated, in its current form and however poor the bill is now a mangled act will be even worse. The only way forward is through consensus. Many of those who opposed the programme motion and the bill did so because of the nature of the bill, the refusal to allow a referendum and the bill’s lamentable lack of clarity not because they opposed House of Lords reform per se. Unless the government and opposition can agree on a bill including a referendum, then the saga of House of Lords reform could be with us for several more decades.