Can Labour be trusted on Lords reform?

Stuart Weir
22 April 2010

Gordon Brown’s commitment to ‘change’, that superficial single word reaching out for the political alchemy that both main parties hope will transform their determination to hang onto the status-quo into electoral gold, lies in his promise of democratic renewal.  But he seems to me to be unusually mealy-mouthed when he re-states party policy on an elected second chamber and electoral reform. And with good reason.

It is not just what he leaves out.  It is that he has been dangling the prospect of democratic renewal, though replete with get-out clauses to protect executive sovereignty, since his green paper in July 2007; and new commitments have come and gone in the interval.  Brown talked about delivering a thousand coaches to rescue stranded travellers in Madrid.  Five turned up.  Nothing so substantial has been done to rescue the British people stranded as we are in an obsolete and unrepresentative political system.

Let’s take his government’s proposals for an elected second chamber, delayed interminably in the first place by Blair’s opposition and then by Mandelson’s objections.  Jack Straw is the architect of these proposals that were recently leaked to the Guardian.  Straw apparently means to introduce open List PR elections to the second chamber – which would give voters a choice of candidates within as well as between parties. A good thing, you may think, if not preferable to the Single Transferable Vote which is more open.

But Straw has form. Straw it was who suggested that he would introduce open List PR elections for the European Parliament. Under pressure from cabinet colleagues, he then introduced closed list PR elections with the D’Hondt system for allocating seats to parties after the votes have been counted. The D’Hondt (DH) notoriously benefits larger parties and the authors of the recent British Academy guide to electoral systems state, “it should never be used unless designers want a bias . . . which is difficult to justify in a democracy”.   This choice gave the Tories four extra seats in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Greens five fewer than they would have received under the more pluralist and less biased Sainte-Leguë system. 

His approach to the issue of seats for bishops in a reformed chamber is characteristic of Labour’s approach to reform generally.  The principled democratic approach would be to remove the 12 episcopal places altogether and to set the bishops (and clergy) free to stand for election along with everyone else, including representatives of other faiths.  This approach has added political urgency. Why should the Church of England be given privileged status in the legislature to maintain pressures to dilute human rights and equality provisions to allow for faith-based objections?

So what does Straw propose?  That the bishop’s bench should be reduced to six! Ye gods!  This is precisely the compromised style of politics that New Labour has adopted in the face of the wishes of so many interest groups from the City of London to supermarkets and Formula One car racing.

And electoral reform?  Brown’s promise of a referendum on electoral reform that would deny the public a choice of proportional representation in the interests of his own party is simply an abuse of power.  Why the Electoral Reform Society is colluding in this shabby and dishonest ploy escapes me.  The Liberal Democrats would gain from a switch to the Alternative Vote, but I trust that they would reject it on principle should they maintain their surge and have to talk coalition or accommodation with a Brown-less Labour leadership after the general election.

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