Last time I contributed to this blog I said I would bet money there would be a deal which enabled the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to complete its passage in time for the referendum to take place on 5 May, and that the recent goings-on in the House would not cause the sky to fall in. I bet Lord Fowler the same on Radio 4 at the beginning of February. As the Bill passed its Report Stage in three days, I said to Lord Fowler that I thought I had won my bet. “No! I’ve won,” he replied. Ah well! My mistake was probably not to name my price. I think a bottle of Krug champagne would have done quite nicely. Another time perhaps …
In the end it went right down to the wire. The Commons sent three of the Lords’ four amendments back, and the Lords insisted on one of them (specifying that the referendum is not binding if the turnout fails to reach 40 %) by a healthy margin of 68. A proposal to insist on a second amendment – one which would give the Boundary Commission slightly greater flexibility – was lost by only one vote. The threshold amendment came back from the Commons a second time, and Labour sought to take the Commons to a further round, but unsurprisingly their Lordships did not have the stomach for any more and the Bill received Royal Assent just before midnight on the eve of the recess.
What conclusions can be drawn from all of this as the dust begins to settle? The received wisdom amongst the commentariat is that Labour has behaved disgracefully in filibustering the Bill, but I take the view that they had little choice but to use the weapon of delay, bringing the prospect that the coalition would not get their bill in time to hold the referendum by their self-imposed deadline of 5 May. This was really all that was left to them when the Government has a built-in majority which is being increased by the day as new peers are created, and was bent on bulldozing a bill of major constitutional importance through without any consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. The Lords’ Select Committee on the Constitution, much respected, was certainly very critical. This might not be playing by the rules of the upper house as they are generally understood, but then the Government wasn’t really playing by the rules either in giving so little. I also have to say that the filibuster was extraordinarily resourceful and entertaining most of the time. I think we can all get too precious about this sort of thing.
As time has gone on the Government has increasingly been seen as being high-handed and inflexible and largely the author of its own difficulties. Cameron and Clegg were particularly macho, saying that Labour were completely unamenable to reason, when in fact the minute they began to make even the most minimal concessions Labour began to take their foot off the brake. It was very interesting to see senior tory peers lining up to send the threshold amendment back to the Commons saying that they were being phoned up by tories whipped to support the Government in the other place urging them to get them out of a hole they didn’t want to be in.
It’s hard to know who blinked first – the Government in face of Labour’s brinkmanship or Labour under the Government’s threat of a guillotine. I should say the honours were probably about even. The Government was clearly very reluctant to impose a guillotine and Labour will not want to make a habit of this. People say that it will have adverse repercussions on the House of Lords, but I’m not so sure. My guess is that it will be business as usual before very long, with filibusters firmly back in the cupboard for use only in the most exceptional of circumstances – though the Tories may want to have their turn just for the sake of it when they’re back in opposition – and guillotines still a step too far.
How might all of this impact on the future of the House of Lords? My sense is that understanding and appreciation of the value of the present House is gradually beginning to increase down the other end of the corridor. Even if elections are not off the table, I certainly think there is growing acceptance of the value of a group of independent, non-elected “experts”. If the majority are to be elected, I think we could well see support for a different method of election than the Commons, say from “constituencies of expertise” – law, medicine, business, the trade unions, sport, the arts, science, education, the universities, defence, the voluntary sector, women’s groups, the disabled, ethnic minorities, etc. That is certainly a notion I shall be trying to promote if the prospect of election comes any nearer. But my guess is this one will play long and might even get bogged down. Indeed it might be beginning to get bogged down already. We were promised a draft bill by the end of last year, then early this year, but nobody has seen hide nor hair of it yet.