Today Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that Britain’s Coalition government would end its attempt to make the country’s upper house, The House of Lords, mostly elected. It is a bitter blow for Lib Dems, but not unexpected. What does this say about the state of British politics?
The problem was that the plans did not command sufficient support on the Conservative benches. There were 90 or so rebels at an earlier vote, and this is enough to kill the bill if Labour oppose it. Labour had supported the reforms in principle, but said that, as a constitutional measure, it needed more time for debate in the Commons, so opposed the critical timetable motion. This argument is entirely specious. Debate on the floor of the Commons is an exercise in farce; it has to be time-limited or else it degenerates into filibuster. The cynicism of Labour’s position is made plain by the fact that they would not be drawn on the amount of time they thought the bill actually needed. But there was in any case a more substantive argument from the Labour side: in their manifesto they had said that reform should be made subject to a referendum, which the government side did not want to do. We can argue about the logic of Labour’s position on the referendum, but a manifesto is a manifesto.
So Mr Clegg was quite right to abandon his attempt at reform. There was very little credit in the wider world to be had for a fight to the death on this issue. While the public is broadly sympathetic to the idea, they don’t care very much about it. Mos readily agree to the trump card argument of British constitutional conservatives: that there are more important things to be doing.
Just about the only way of getting the reform through would have been to accept a referendum. Although the current polls are favourable, it would be a difficult referendum to win – a bit like Australia becoming a republic. Australians favour a republic in principle, but the never the particular structure of republic that is on offer. It was easy to pick holes in the specifics of the proposals – but that would be true of any proposal born of attempts to create consensus. The risk/reward ratio just didn’t stack.
Lib Dems are very bitter, since they see this as a breach of faith, as Andrew Rawnsley has explained in the Observer. They have knuckled down to vote for a number of proposals that they really hated, such as tuition fees for universities (though to be fair some high-up Lib Dems secretly liked the idea), and elected police commissioners, as well as immigration limits. Of course Tories have voted for Lib Dem policies too, but these are mostly quite popular in the country at large, such as raising tax thresholds. Although the Tories let them have a referendum on AV, their campaign to oppose this modest and sensible reform was so vitriolic and irrational as to come over as a breach of faith, especially when they attacked Mr Clegg personally on the basis that you couldn’t trust him because he entered into coalition with them!
But the public indifference left Mr Clegg with a problem. Why bring the government down over this, and not tuition fees, or many other things which are currently unpopular with the public at large? So the breach is not enough to end the Coalition. Instead Mr Clegg has decided to withdraw the party’s support to boundary changes to Westminster constituencies. This reform would equalise their size, to the benefit, so the conventional wisdom goes, of the Tories.
Here it is Mr Clegg’s turn to be politically calculating. I have heard his supporters make the argument that since there will be no elected upper chamber, we need to retain a bigger Commons – an argument that I struggle to understand. To be fair Mr Clegg does not use this argument in his email to members – where it comes over as a more straightforward tit-for-tat. The Tory sophists argue that the Coalition agreement did not actually say that they would vote for the Lords reforms – just to bring forward proposals. But the same can be said of the boundary changes.
And as things have turned out, the boundary changes are a real problem for the Lib Dems. In ordinary times they would have been much more relaxed, as they have shown an ability to move out of their strongholds in held seats to win over adjacent areas. The London MP Sarah Teather won her seat in 2010 in spite of major changes to the boundaries. But the Lib Dem activist base has suffered with the coalition, and the campaigning environment is much tougher. They have shown an ability to hold on where the party and its candidates are locally well know, but not elsewhere. There are no reserves with which to flood new areas. The boundary changes are a major headache. Neither are the changes partilcualry popular amongst the general public, whatever the intellectual case. To get equally sized seats they have run roughshod over traditional local sensibilities. In Wales the impact is particularly severe. Even may Tory MPs will be relieved if the reforms died a death.
But it will create an awkward moment in 2013 when the vote is due to take place, unless the proposal is abandoned. To defeat the changes Lib Dem government ministers would have to vote against or abstain – this would be new territory for the government and could easily bring it down.
So who gains from this sorry saga? The first winners are Labour, where their cynical manoeuvring have bought rich rewards. First they have made the Coalition look weak and incompetent. But best of all they should now be able to defeat the boundary changes, which they hate. Ed Milliband’s leadership can chalk up another success after his inauspicious start.
The second winners are the grumpy Tory backbenchers. They genuinely hated the Lords reform, and will be glad to kill it. They are also pretty relaxed about idea of the coalition failing. And as individuals the defeat of the boundary changes makes their lives easier.
For the Lib Dems the outcome is mixed. It’s a policy failure but it is very clear who is to blame: the Tory backbenchers and the scheming Labour politicians – unlike the AV referendum. This fiasco is out of the way a long time before the next election is due – and defeating the boundary changes will give their campaigners the best possible chance of hanging on to the 40-50 seats needed for the party to survive as a political force.
The big loser is the Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron, and his project of turning his party into a credible one of government. For all the soft soap he puts into the Party’s manifesto, it is clear that he can’t carry his party with him. He took on his backbenchers and came out second. His party can unite around a right-wing Eurosceptic platform, but winning a General Election, especially on the old boundaries, looks impossible. A centrist Tory manifesto will not be credible. His plan to use the coalition with the Lib Dems to de-toxifiy the Tory brand has come completely unstuck.
And the country remains stuck with an antiquated system of government that increasingly loses the respect of both the public and the world at large. The public is paying a big price for its indifference.