‘Expertise’ in its twilight years

Lord Tyler

The more nocturnal of our readers will doubtless have flicked through television channels in the early hours many times before. When the BBC’s rolling news becomes tiresome, perhaps because the day’s stories have long since turned from ‘rolling’ to plain old, you flick along two channels and have a look at what Sky’s saying.  Then you discover that Murdoch’s channel is only reporting old sports news (all right, all right, we know we won the cricket!), so you might flick one down on to BBC Parliament.  In those early hours, it usually broadcasts recorded coverage of that day’s sitting in the Lords. 

Not so last night.  The channel had rare live coverage of the Lords sitting all through the night on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill.   

If anyone thinks that what follow is uncharacteristically incendiary, I should explain that I have had less than two hours’ sleep.  Instead I have had to listen to endlessly repetitive special pleading from a small group of ex-MPs. 

Viewers of the Parliament Channel could observe the spectacle of Labour Peers engaged in long-winded obstruction of which filibustering US Senators would be proud.  We heard at length of the different figures which could be arrived at for the number of MPs in the House of Commons, and we heard which of those figures were derived from prime numbers, and which prime numbers were most likely to be involved.  We got lengthy expositions of the particular boundaries of constituencies Peers had once been connected with, and of the surrounding constituencies, and of how terribly important they all were. 

This was the House of Lords at its absolute worst.  We are supposed to be a constructive, revising chamber.  However, the Opposition has now managed to bind together some of the more arcane procedures of the House with their own political chicanery to create a very grubby picture.  In the service of the absurd Labour argument that constituencies should not contain roughly an equal number of voters, unelected peers are now contriving to delay and derail a long awaited chance for the people to have their say on the electoral system.  

And what of all the supposed ‘expertise’ in the House?  Is it a cohort of wise elders who are creating this delay?  Of course not.  All through the night the charge was led by former Labour MPs, in the twilight both of their political careers, and of everyone else’s patience.  Their sole objective now is to upset the balance of the Coalition Government by disrupting the progress of this Bill.  They harp on about ‘proper scrutiny’ but what they are doing is neither proper nor scrutiny.  It is expert mischief making – nothing more, nothing less. 

The ‘debate’ goes on…and I will be lucky to get any more sleep tonight.  What a way to run a country!

16 comments for “‘Expertise’ in its twilight years

  1. Maude Elwes
    18/01/2011 at 2:28 pm

    What you must do for your country and as a duty is to hang in there and not allow this to delay or hold anything up. In other words, beat them at their own game. Tiresome, as I am sure this is.

    The opposition must feel they would fall short of voters should a fairer system be in place. Now why should they believe that? Could it be because they know what the public want but are off on a tangent on some kind of political doctrine that nobody in the majority of the country wants?

    However, with that in mind, AV is a fudge and not what the public wants or expects as fair democratic rights of voting.

  2. Len
    18/01/2011 at 2:38 pm

    This farcical filibuster is appalling, I agree. If there was actual debate, I wouldn’t mind, but there’s not.

    I also agree that there should be a moratorium of new appointments – from the Commons, if not totally. We can’t keep having these ex-MPs coming up to the Lords simply because they were loyal to their party for a long time, can we?

    You are correct that the ex-MPs appear to be the problem. It’s not the Martin Rees’, Peter Hennessys or Robert Mays which are bringing the House down. We need more of them and less of former politicians.

    You wouldn’t guess it from your post, but approximately a third of the House has had a background in representative politics – two thirds haven’t, and I’d hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. 18/01/2011 at 2:42 pm

    If the upper chamber were elected, it would then be completely devoid of expertise, and comprise party political politicians who would indulge in these sorts of shenanigans – filibustering Senators, no less.

    Of course, if they had really wanted to, the coalition could have given voters a real say on the electoral system by having a referendum on the electoral system, and not using it as an opportunity to force through changes to constituency sizes at the same time.

  4. Carl.H
    18/01/2011 at 2:59 pm

    Answer me something. What is different about the people of Scotland, NI and Wales that they need devolution ? How does that differ to different Counties, town or areas of a city ?

    This bill has not had independent research or scrutiny. Should a Government be allowed to put forward that actually only one MP who is democratically elected is necessary or 10,000 MP’s ? Should any minority and a Government is an autonomous minority be allowed to change the constitution and the make-up of Parliament, I think not.

    I am not against 600 or 500, or even 700 but this figure should not be dictated by Government whom you know well will use it to advantage.

    The House would be against the Government doing the same with it’s members why be hypocritical now ?

    The need for 600 has been shown in evidence where ? The population of England is somewhere around the 60 million mark in real terms, at 75k per MP as is put then that works out at 800 MP’s.

    Now I know my noble Lord, Lord Tyler would agree with the principle of PR but most of the Tories don`t and in this view of equalising votes they are treading very close to it.

    Perhaps I am old and cynical but this bill to my mind is a contrived effort to gain more power, nothing more. There is no research and the Government keep saying they haven`t done any sums which show they will be better off as a Party. I don’t believe it for a moment.

    Would the noble Lords agree with this Bill if it were them being reduced in number ? Without the independent research and reports ?

    “This was the House of Lords at its absolute worst.”

    To the contrary, this was Labour at it’s best.

  5. Lord Blagger
    18/01/2011 at 3:46 pm

    f the upper chamber were elected, it would then be completely devoid of expertise, and comprise party political politicians who would indulge in these sorts of shenanigans – filibustering Senators, no less.

    No change from the current system them.

    No hairdressers

    No car mechanics.

    No expertise of large swathes of society.

    Lots of failed politicians currently fillibustering.

    What the objection since nothing changes?

    Roll on referenda by proxy. Constituency sizes are then irrelevant. One person one vote.

    • Twm O'r Nant
      19/01/2011 at 10:16 am

      the upper chamber were elected, it would then be completely devoid of expertise,

      How can you say such a thing when there are people like billy Bragg very keen to join, and Boy! Can he sing!Can he sing!
      The Welsh constituencies which are so small have to be preserved I guess with their small
      population bases?

  6. Chris
    18/01/2011 at 5:11 pm

    With all due respect, the reason the opposition are scrutinising this heavily now, is because this coalition government railroaded it through parliament, with absolutely no debating time, or public consultation, on the basis that the Lib Dems wanted to hold the referendum very soon after going into coalition, on the basis that they felt that they could get an artificially high “yes vote” if they combined it with Scottish and Welsh elections.

    What’s more, the “equal constituencies” policy, is little more than a gerrymander, which attempts to take advantage of the fact that ethnic minorities, and young people, struggle to stay on the electoral role, as they can’t afford homes, and have to rent flats, and hence, tend to move about a lot.

    The current numbers work, basically, on the “number of registered voters”. The coalition are trying to make it “number of people”, to take advantage of the fact that a large proportion of Labour voters are in circumstances where it’s not as easy to stay in a constituency as your average mortgaged to the hilt tory or lib dem.

    What I’m saying is, a Lib Dem peer lecturing people about democracy, is truly laughable.

    This entire bill is an affront to democracy.

  7. Chris
    18/01/2011 at 5:12 pm

    Why should Labour have to apologize for the stupidity of Lib Dems?

    As in, why do you think the tories demanded that AV be linked to equal constituencies?

    As they knew full well Labour would try and disrupt it, and there’d be a fair chance they wouldn’t have to give an immediate AV vote.

    You know, the fact the Lib Dems went into government, propped up the tories, without being to negotiate a proper AV bill is their own issue

  8. Matt
    18/01/2011 at 6:29 pm

    “And what of all the supposed ‘expertise’ in the House?”

    Well yes, quite. If one good thing comes out of this, it wiil be the inability of the bulk of life peers to use the self-congratulatory ‘expertise’ claim again, with a straight face.

    Note that all the comments on here, if delivered as speeches, would have only taken a few minutes each. None of the ‘blah blah blah’ which I was watching, in fixated disbelief, in the middle of the night, in the Lords.

    Lord Blagger draws our attention to the lack of car mechanics, hairdressers etc, in the political process. I have long advocated that a portion of seats in the second chamber should be selected entirely by random from among the general public, to bring this about. Anyone who doubts the ‘quality’ of debate this would facilitate only needs to watch the many excellent interventions made by audience members in the bbc’s ‘question time’ programme … I hardly need to drive home the contrast between that, and what we have just endured in the Lords.

    • Tim
      18/01/2011 at 10:18 pm

      I probably just ought to point out here that the audience on Question Time is vetted for interest in/awareness of current affairs.

      • Matt
        19/01/2011 at 12:11 pm

        Yes I know … I simply offered it as the closest thing we have at the moment.

  9. Dave H
    18/01/2011 at 7:44 pm

    I have a certain sympathy with them to the extent that the Bill needs proper scrutiny and by imposing a time limit, it’s not going to get that so I consider that in this instance delay is a valid response to improper pressure, although constructive delay would be preferable. The government is supposed to wait a year before pushing the Lords.

    However, as I mentioned elsewhere, given the behaviour of the previous government and the way they were trying to ram all that legislation through a year ago, it’s a bit pot-kettle-black.

  10. Lord Blagger
    19/01/2011 at 10:02 am


    Sleeping on the job.

    So much for proper scrutiny, and we pay for it?

    Anyone care to name names?

  11. Matt
    19/01/2011 at 12:12 pm

    (Reply to Tim)

  12. 20/01/2011 at 10:47 am

    The only reason this filibuster is actually worth it is because the government needs to have it passed by February.

    If it were not for this then the filibuster would be a pointless exercise by Labour, because the House would have virtually unlimited time to consider the bill.

  13. Dan Filson
    21/01/2011 at 10:10 pm

    I have not done any count of former Conservative MPs or former Liberal MPs (or as is often the case former would-be Liberal MPs), but I suspect their number is comparable to the numbers of former Labour MPs. If they are not taking part in the alleged filibuster it is possibly because they support the legislation. But in the past they have been as obstructive of Labour measures as the opposition are now of the Government measures.

    The loss of expertise inherent in an elected second chamber is one reason I personally do not support it. I’m in a minority possibly of only one, but I would prefer an indirectly elected chamber, still with an episcopal bench (perhaps slightly smaller), and still with some nominated peers. The indirect elections would take place in the 5 or so months following a general election with the electors being the candidates at that general election (only those retaining their deposits), each casting a vote proportional to the votes they received, the votes being counted by STV. This would ensure a regional and party balance in those elected. I would hope the ranks of candidates would include those who had expertise but either no party label or who deigned not to be in the hurly-burly of lower house elections. This would not necessarily ensure the election of such as Peter Hennessey, nor for that matter former Permanent Secretaries, Chiefs of Staff, etc. Nor Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I might also have a small section of life seats for the truly great and good, such as former PMs and Archbishops, with elections of only 2 or 3 after every general election.

    Those who advocate an elected chamber with long terms of office should consider the effect of that on the French 3rd Republic.

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