The Labour party has supported House of Lords reform since Keir Hardie. A legislature based on the hereditary principle and patronage should be an affront to all democrats. I remember as a Foreign Office minister encouraging democratic reforms on Middle East autocrats only to be met with the riposte: ‘well the upper House of your Parliament isn’t democratic.’
The last Labour government had a strong record on Lords reform. We achieved more in 13 years than previous governments, including Labour ones, had in more than 100 years before. Ninety per cent of the hereditary peers were expelled. We introduced people’s peers and a supreme court. The main reason we didn’t complete Lords reform was Tory resistance. Robin Cook’s proposal for an 80 per cent elected chamber was defeated by just four votes in a free vote in the Commons in 2003. Our reforming drive faltered somewhat after that, but the issue did not go off the agenda. By the end of the Labour government we’d achieved something remarkable and unprecedented – all-party consensus for Lords reform. Support for an elected Lords became a central part of Cameron’s drive to modernise his party and detoxify its brand. All three main parties fought the last election with manifesto commitments for an elected Lords for the first time.
We can now see how skin-deep the Tory party’s ‘modernisation’ really was. Mutinous Conservative MPs issue dire threats to destroy the coalition and replace Cameron as their leader if he persists with this policy on which they were all elected.
I’m all for maximising the coalition’s discomfort. But if people think the way to do that is by making common cause with Tory head-bangers over Lords reform, we’d be committing a grave error. Labour’s policy – pro-reform with a referendum – is a perfectly respectable one – born of compromise in our manifesto-drafting process between our own reformers and sceptics. The recommendations published today of the joint committee chaired by the excellent Labour peer Kay Andrews are perfectly reasonable and the vast majority of the PLP ought to be able to united behind them. They have the added benefit of supporting Labour’s referendum idea. Once the bill is published, Labour’s priority should be to give it the smoothest possible passage to the Lords and let the Tories and Lib Dems fight among themselves there. To do otherwise would play straight into the government’s hands. If we were to seek to block or scupper Lords reform we would give Cameron just the excuse he needs to abandon it and escape the nightmare he faces in terms of party and coalition management. Clegg would be able to rage at Labour ‘opportunism’ and blame us for the failure of an historic reform we claim to have always supported. We would also alienate that relatively small but disproportionately influential group of progressive voters and commentators for whom democratic and constitutional reforms matter and risk driving them back into the arms of the Liberal Democrats. We’ll get the tactics and politics of Lords reform right by being true to Labour’s long-standing progressive principles.
Ben Bradshaw is MP for Exeter and former secretary of state for culture, media and sport