Yesterday’s debate on constitutional affairs marked quite a moving moment for those of us on the Liberal Democrat side. Having argued tirelessly for decades that Britain needs thoroughgoing constitutional reform – a new electoral system, an elected second chamber, fixed term Parliaments, to name just three – it was astonishing and gratifying to see Tom McNally at the dispatch box finally setting out those objectives, not as a challenge to Labour or Tory opponents, but as a programme for Government.
The House of Lords has always taken a more consensual approach to its debates, so it is perhaps more malleable to the disciplines of this new politics. At our end of the building, we are more comfortable with carefully negotiated agreements – we had to make them in the last Parliament to get business through.
I was pleased to find thoughtful support on both sides, for example, for the proposal for fixed term parliaments. There has been much made of the proposed 55% threshold for early dissolution, and in all the media bluster people seem to have forgotten the basic principle at stake. It is quite wrong, and always has been, that the Prime Minister or Government of the day should have the power to dissolve Parliament at will, and to time an election for its own political convenience. Gordon Brown’s relentless dithering around a date for the last election is all too good an indication of the need for change, as – incidentally – was John Major’s self same indecision about the date of what eventually became the 1992 election.
So if Parliament is to have a fixed term, something has to hold it in place. A super majority is the obvious mechanism since a simple 50%+1 would give any government with a majority the same power to time elections for partisan advantage. Canada has tried this model, and it has had little useful effect. When the Scotland Act set a threshold for dissolving the new Parliament there, all parties agreed the threshold should be two thirds – many would have preferred that for Westminster, but 55% seems a reasonable compromise. I was pleased to see that Lord Norton – though he characteristically counsels caution, and further investigation – was not opposed to the idea, and, on the Labour side, Lord Rooker (an excellent former Minister) was more supportive still.
Naturally the House remains conservative (small ‘c’) on the issue of its own reform. The former Conservative Cabinet Minister Norman St John Stevas, summed up the collective feeling of the existing Lords best when he said, “We do not want a lot of people elected by proportional representation; we want some distinguished people”. Despite all that smug complacency, it does seem to me that there is now a better chance than ever that the manifesto commitments of all three main parties and the clear preference of the public for an elected House might now come to fruition. The Lords has always been pragmatic, and I believe many Peers will now want to think about how best to make changes work, rather than how best to stand in their way.
At the Commons end, the spirit of consensus seems less marked. Harriet Harman’s first contribution indicated that her brief period at the Labour Party’s helm will be one marked by snyde partisanship. Labour MPs are not ready for a new politics yet. Alas, her colleague Baroness Royall of Blaisdon – for whose work in the last Parliament I have some considerable respect – seemed to have had her first contribution written by the same eager Labour hack, laced as it was with sarcasm and disdain. It looks to me as if the public have rejected that sort of politicking – opposition for opposition’s sake – and if Labour think they can prosper by going backwards, they’ve got another thing coming.