If a week in politics is a long time then two years is an eternity. Embarrassing failure on both counts is all that we have to show for that initial optimism. As if that was not sufficiently bad, we have accepted huge electoral reverses as a price for remaining in coalition – an arrangement which, a few significant measures aside, has done less than most of envisaged to see our key aims translated into action or to take our party forward.
I continue to believe that the Liberal Democrats should remain in government even if, with retrospective hindsight, I feel the basis on which we were sold it was flawed and the naïveté of the negotiators breathtaking. Today, as it emerged that Lords reform is to be abandoned (or, to use the rhetoric of January 1988, has become as dead as the Pythonesque parrot) blame has been laid squarely at the feet of the Conservative and Labour parties. That they deserve to be derided for their respective roles is not in question. However, there remain deeper questions closer to home in regards our own leadership and our party’s failure to seize the opportunity we were given. The failure to deliver is partially our own and while Nick Clegg’s justifiable anger towards our Conservative partners was expressed eloquently in an admittedly bold and fascinating speech earlier today, it is perhaps time for some quiet introspection rather than grand, retaliatory gestures.
Coalition has set the cause of electoral and House of Lords reform back at least a generation. That is Nick Clegg’s legacy. It is not one he wanted and it will undoubtedly pain him to realise it, but that opportunity is lost for the foreseeable future and possibly a lifetime. It hurts Nick, and no doubt it hurts all progressives who care about democracy. The reality that Liberal Democrats find themselves in is accepting that even being a minority party in coalition government affords little influence to accomplish key policy objectives or even imbue government policy with a liberal tinge; as Kevin McNamara writes today on Lib Dem Voice, we have merely provided a few Liberal Democrat cherries in what is a distinctively Conservative cake. This in turn begs several questions about our role in government and the direction the party should take next.
That, however, is not the subject of my attentions. I am more directly concerned with the matter of what amounts to the defeat of Lords reform and Nick Clegg’s response to it. There was more than a hint of despair in Clegg’s statement: “despite these painstaking efforts the Labour party and Conservative backbenchers united to block any further progress, preventing government from securing a timetable motion without which the Bill effectively becomes impossible to deliver.” Referring particularly to Labour, he said: “In my discussions with [them], they have made it clear that while they continue to back Lords reform in principle they are set on blocking it in practice. Supporting the ends, but – when push comes to shove – obstructing the means. Regrettably Labour is allowing short-term political opportunism to thwart long-term democratic change.” Clegg’s frustration was almost tangible.
Turning on the Conservatives, Clegg was at his most effective and brutal. “Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street” he explained. “When part of a contract is broken, it is normal to amend that contract in order then to move on.” He stated that he would be instructing Liberal Democrat MPs to vote against boundary changes because delivering them without Lords reform would create an “imbalance...in our political system: cut[ting] the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords...weaken[s] parliament as a whole.” Intriguingly he revealed he had offered opportunities for the Conservatives to “progress with both reforms” by offering a Referendum on Lords Reform to coincide with the 2015 General Election. But that was rejected, so there is now a requirement to “restore balance to the Coalition Agreement”.
It was a pretty effective speech, stemming from both conviction and frustration, which he finished by hitting the right notes on other key policy areas and a promise to “anchor this government firmly in the centre ground”. In a sense, he was startlingly optimistic given this recent setback. His firmness and tone are to be welcomed. But in some key respects Clegg was plainly wrong and his anger towards Conservatives dishonouring the coalition agreement a little misplaced.
Fellow Lib Dems will tire of me saying this, but what is actually in the coalition agreement is this:
“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”
Now, of course I understand that what the 91 Conservative rebels have done flies in the face of the spirit of the coalition agreement. But it’s not the spirit that matters: it’s the black and white, what is spelled out on paper. And there’s absolutely nothing in that coalition agreement that binds any Conservative MP to support Lords Reform: in fact, the little that has been promised has already been achieved.
Clearly it’s a little more complex than that and there were assumptions of good faith on the part of the respective leaderships. But assumptions are not contractual. Having read David Laws’ 22 Days in May, it is quite remarkable how little attention was actually given over to Lords Reform. There certainly seems a startling amount of naïveté on the part of our negotiators that the Conservatives would hold up their end of the deal; so sure were we that Cameron would bring his party with him on the matter that we failed to so much as ensure a promise of Lords reform in the coalition agreement. How could we sign up to such a thing when no plain text reading of it could be interpreted as such?
And so, when Clegg argues passionately that “Lords reform was...written into the coalition agreement – without argument or controversy” he’s overlooking an astonishing lack of detail and clarity. With hindsight, senior Liberal Democrats must realise they should have pressed harder for watertight promises. It is simply unbelievable that some of the sharpest political minds could have put together a coalition agreement that would allow disgruntled Tory backbenchers the opportunity to derail a key Liberal Democrat policy and for that we should accept some responsibility.
Clegg went on to state that he “had hoped that, with enough compromise and cross-party involvement we could build a consensus delivering it once and for all.” That is fine sentiment indeed. However, it was never matched by any real effort to build a parliamentary consensus. This may of course be because so much Lib Dem faith had been invested in the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver in spite of the wishes of his party, even after the AV fiasco. However, to any canny political observer, for Lords reform to be achieved would require significant Labour support. Charles Kennedy’s appeal for “a progressive alliance” came too late to be effective but such a call should have been made earlier, before Labour saw their opportunity to cynically destabilise the coalition. Another notable failure was to give Labour nothing really worth voting for: either a more democratic package of reform or reason to believe that their cynical objectives could actually be met by siding against Tory rebels. What is clear is that Clegg’s hoped-for consensus failed to materialise and that the miserable compromise of 15 year terms, huge constituencies with list PR and the retention of 12 Lords Spiritual was partly responsible. Nick Clegg’s ambition to achieve reform, almost irrespective of what that reform actually was on the basis that it must naturally be better than the status quo, was ultimately self-defeating.
Liberal Democrats will have expected Labour to have supported Lords Reform but the nature of tribal politics means that such assumptions should not be easily made and certainly not taken for granted. The political reality was that Labour perceived they had more to gain from obstruction that co-operation, something that should have been adequately addressed and remedied. Clegg insisted today that “it is obvious that the Bill’s opponents would now seek to inflict on it a slow death.” That is true, but it need not necessarily have been. In any case, few coherent attempts at constructive dialogue appear to have been made. It is difficult to know whether it was a naive faith in the Prime Minister or a refusal to co-operate with Labour that was more costly, but the failure to achieve “consensus” has proved a bar to delivery and Clegg’s words speak of his own inability to achieve it.
Whether it was wise to threaten blocking boundary changes in retaliation for the loss of Lords Reform in advance of the vote is questionable. It is unlikely to have much of an effect on Tory rebels, many of whom have little love for the coalition, while at the same time ensuring that opponents of boundary changes within Labour were further incentivised to vote with them. This represents another tactical failure, although probably too late to make much difference to the outcome. Now it is clear that Lords Reform is a non-starter in this parliament, it may be no bad thing to withdraw support for boundary alterations that will only damage the Liberal Democrats - although this is sure to delight many right-wing Tories and is neither the best weapon in our armoury nor the most pertinent issue we could choose to influence. Whether this “rebalances” the coalition is uncertain. Personally, I feel that recent events may have long and lasting ramifications for coalition dynamics and, potentially, government stability.
Nick Clegg had a word for “modernisers and campaigners” who desire a more democratic second chamber: “I am as disappointed as you that we have not delivered an elected Lords this time around. But Lords Reform has always been a case of two steps forward, one step back. And my hope is that we will return to it, in the next Parliament emboldened by the overwhelming vote in favour of our Bill at second reading.” This is not a case of gradual progress but one of climbing what once seemed an insurmountable ladder to place the issue firmly on the political agenda, only to slither down the snake’s back all the way to square one.
Nick Clegg is right to bemoan failure. But, for all the finger pointing, it is a collective failure. Instead of the promised “new politics” of compromise and consensus we’ve witnessed entrenched tribalism, easy point scoring and refusal to engage on the basis of small-minded self-interest. It is a failure of the political system to reform itself in the public interest, and one in which the Liberal Democrats must take some share of the responsibility.
The cause has been set back significantly but not entirely defeated, even if the immediate future looks grim. Whether the issue can be revisted in the next parliament, as Clegg plainly hopes, is uncertain and seems highly unlikely. But when Lords Reform does again make it onto the parliamentary agenda, I hope that debate will stem from a collaborative determination to redesign democracy so absent on this occasion.