Robin Cook must be turning in his grave, so spake Menzies Campbell, the grand old man of the Liberal Democrats in Parliament. Having voted for House of Lords reform in principle, and then making it clear that Labour would not vote for the programme motion that might have made reform possible, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan will have to get used to this knockabout stuff. Politicians frequently line up to curse politicians for behaving as politicians do. But many more neutral observers agree: Labour is betraying its principles for wicked party political advantage.
The first and most obvious point to be made is that parliamentary politics in our country is not made of ‘sugar and spice, and all things nice’. It is an age-old and legitimate tradition for opposition parties to exploit the archaic practice and processes of Westminster to obstruct and frustrate government. In this case Peter Hain has given the tradition an extra degree of legitimacy, arguing that prolonged trench warfare over the reform on the floor of the House of Commons would damage the government’s ability to carry through oppressive legislation.
Credible as far as it goes. The trouble of course is that the government is not going to take the risk of proceeding with the reform bill on the floor of the House. By hook or crook, Cameron is likely to duck taking on a confrontation with nearly a hundred of his backbenchers over the programme motion. Yes, Labour’s tactic does intensify the pressures within the coalition and may even lead to a great prize for Labour: Lib Dem defection over boundary changes which are in themselves a constitutional outrage and put many Lib Dem MPs in peril... and then possibly the dissolution of the coalition itself.
Consider this. Cameron may well be seeking his ‘pause’ over the motion not to win over his rebels, but in fact to negotiate a compromise with Clegg that avoids a tit for tat response from Clegg’s colleagues and keeps together a coalition that both party leaders at least regard as essential for their political survival. The Lib Dems have shown little sign of the bottle they would have to demonstrate to vote against or abstain on the boundary changes.
Consider still further. Is there a greater prize in the offing? Could not Labour now engage in serious negotiation with the government over the terms of the programme motion and the more undesirable aspects of what is a flawed reform anyway? (Even in conventional terms it is a mess, and shows no sign of measuring up to the questions that Anthony Barnett raises.) They could then vote for the programme motion with an understanding that the party's amendments will be taken seriously in debate. Such a course of action could pitch Cameron into bitter protracted combat with his rebellious backbench members, reveal how divided his party is over the reform and other issues, and intensify the parliamentary party’s dissatisfaction with his policy positions and with the coalition. And Labour could emerge smelling of roses.