openDemocracyUK

The failure of Lords Reform highlights the growing distortion of the UK Political Right

Cracks are widening in the UK Government as the long-awaited Lib Dem revolt gathers momentum. But how to account for this schism? Despite the visage of 'progressive Conservatism', the arguments forwarded by key sections of the party against Lords reform demonstrate a belligerent unwillingness to engage in due democratic process. 

Samuel Levy
13 August 2012

The Liberal Democrats’ slippery slope was further oiled last month when the House of Lords Reform Bill was denied a timetabling motion. This all but signaled the bill’s demise and meant that the possibility of serious reform in the upper chamber continues to remain a distant one. It is the fourth in a sequence of major blows that Mr Clegg and his party have taken since the May 2010 Coalition was formed, the previous three being: the failure of the pro-AV campaign, the mishandling of the NHS reforms, and the poor political presentation of the rise in student fees. However, the failure of Lords reform is markedly distinct from its predecessors in that it is an actual reneging on the May 2010 agreement by the Conservative ‘half’ of the Coalition, with the majority of backbench Tories abstaining or voting against the bill.

Mr Clegg’s response to this disloyalty has been strong. In a so called tit-for-tat approach, the Deputy Prime Minister is encouraging his party to vote against the new parliamentary boundary changes that would hugely benefit the Tories with respect to elections. The Prime Minister has, unsurprisingly, argued that this reaction is unjustifiable because “the boundary changes and AV referendum were a combined package” and, with the Tories having delivered on allowing an AV referendum, the Lib Dems ought, in Mr Cameron’s view, to reciprocate with regard to the boundary changes.

This disagreement and Coalition tension aside, the fact that Mr Clegg and his party may well fight the boundary changes has caused some Leftists to rejoice at the fate of Lords reform because they now consider its failure to be a potential harbinger of truer democracy through the continuance of the current parliamentary boundaries. Additionally, in the words of Martin Kettle of the Guardian, the failure of Lords reform “underscores a pragmatic truth” - “the Conservative party is not a party of reform”. Indeed, David Cameron is no Disraeli. But why is it that a supposedly modernised Conservative party still recoils at the prospect of such democratic and rational change?

Some might argue that there is an inherent place for some sort of House of Lords in the liberal economics of British capitalism and, as such, the Tories’ mission to defend the Lords marks an effort to uphold the economic freedoms of Classical Liberalism. This sort of view could be evidenced by new research from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which reveals that “124 out of the main body of 775 lords have links to financial institutions and take a disproportionately large number of seats on committees scrutinizing policy that affects the City”.

When such data is further considered, the immediate thought of decadence is replaced with prudence. Indeed, with respect to the above, it seems effective and proper that Lords with experience in a certain area scrutinise that area. Yet the source of the UK political right’s reluctance to go ahead with Lords reform is not found in a rational kernel of economic liberalism but an irrational, archaic love of tradition and identity.

These ideas have nothing to do with the important macroeconomic debates that rage between Left and Right; they are arbitrary and irrational anti-Enlightenment ideas that need to be shaken off. It is the continuing influence of these out-of-date views - blocking Lords reform by appeal to 'tradition' or some other antiquated and empty term - that causes the Conservatives to remain reactionary in their outlook. 

The UK Political Right needs to escape its dogmatic association with the illiberal and irrational traditionalism that was handed down to it by the 20th Century and embrace the uncontaminated, rational 19th Century Classical Liberalism that the Lib Dems (particularly the Orange Bookers) have tried haplessly to uphold in the Coalition. Only once the Right has rationalised itself in this way will serious talk of democratic Lords reform see the light of day.

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