The extended debate on, and attempts to delay, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill have derived from some misunderstandings. One, variously expressed over the past few weeks, is that peers have to utilise the power of delay because the coalition now enjoys an effective majority in the House. However, it doesn’t. Up to the Christmas recess, there were 31 votes in the House. The Government lost nine of them. Even if all the new peers had been introduced, the Government would still not have carried the day on all of them. It has even been defeated twice on the PVSC Bill.
What has happened is that there has been a change in terms of the grouping that holds the balance of power. In the preceding Parliaments, on paper it was the cross-benchers but in practice was the Liberal Democrats – though fewer in number than the cross-benchers they were more disciplined and turned out in some force for divisions. Now, both on paper and in practice, it is the cross-benchers. They appear to be taking their role seriously and turning out in some numbers. If they divide disproportionately against the Government, the Government is in trouble.
The other claim is that advanced in an earlier post by Lord Soley, namely that constitutional measures should only proceed on the basis of cross-party agreement. I don’t disagree with this as a desirable goal but it is not a statement of the reality of constitutional change. Over the past century, since and including the Parliament Act 1911, very few measures of major constitutional change have been enacted on the basis of cross-party agreement. The Representation of the People Act 1918 is an exception. Otherwise, the measures have usually been the product of partisan conflict, the Government achieving their enactment in the face of stiff resistance from the Opposition. On occasion, they have been achieved in the face of attacks from the Opposition and some Government backbenchers. Edward Heath, for example, had to resort to a vote of confidence to get the European Communities Act 1972 through.
Our constitution has been subject to significant change on the basis of what the Government of the day proposes. It has not been on the basis of a parliamentary consensus. As I say, I am not justifying this. I am just pointing out the historical reality.