I suppose we should all know by now, but it still seems odd to me that the positions taken up by many Peers seem so at variance with their Party, their colleagues in the Commons and with their promises to the electorate in party manifestos. In recent days Labour backbench Peers have been universally critical, to the point of demolition attempts, of the Recall of MPs Bill, which was foreshadowed in their 2010 manifesto and strongly supported by their leadership and MPs.
To some extent I have been sympathising with their concerns. I have repeatedly said in the Committee debates that I believe the current Bill to be unlikely to satisfy anyone, and in need of substantial improvement.
Yet a succession of Labour elders have come as close as they dare to rejecting entirely the right of electors to have any say in holding errant MPs to account between elections. Ignoring the commitment of their leadership at, and since, the 2010 Election to support this law, which would enable the electors in a constituency to recall MPs in cases of “serious wrongdoing”, Labour Peers have tried to rubbish the whole Bill.
Lord (George) Foulkes was all for tearing it up, because “we will have MPs looking over their shoulder week in and week out”. Baroness (Rita) Donaghy claimed “this is the worst form of populism.” Lord (Alan) Howarth believed efforts to ensure genuine public involvement in the process would be “very strange, very daring, very unorthodox, very risky and very improper”. Lord (Bruce) Grocott said “I do not want to see MPs thrown out in these circumstances.” Lord (Peter) Snape was worried that MPs “are apparently intent on this self-flagellation.” In short, they all seemed scared out of their wits at the thought of greater accountability.
By contrast, a cross-party attempt to make the Bill work more effectively and fairly received a more receptive response from Conservatives and Crossbenchers. We had taken our cue from the careful analysis of the Constitution Committee: “The constitutional purpose of recall is to increase MPs direct accountability to their electorates: it is questionable whether that purpose is achieved when the trigger is put in the hands of MPs rather than constituents.” Lord (David) Alton (Crossbench) and Lord (Alistair) Lexden (Conservative) co-signed my probing amendments (2 and 25-32) and spoke in their support, while other Conservatives (even Lord (Michael) Fosyth!) appeared more relaxed about our attempt to strengthen the Bill. Only the always reliably reactionary Lord (Patrick) Cormack endorsed, from the Coalition side, the persistent indignation emanating from Labour’s benches.
The Minister – Lord (John) Gardiner – was not enthusiastic, emphasising practical and legal difficulties, but he did not deny the force of the Constitution Committee’s conclusion. We will seek a cross-party meeting with him; I cannot identify any Labour Peer, however hard I try, whose approach throughout the Committee stage would suggest that they want to make an inadequate Bill better.