Labour should stick to its guns on Lords reform
It’s hard to know quite exactly what George Osborne was thinking when he saw the speedy annihilation of the Conservative treasury minister Chloe Smith, as she took the fall for him – twice – on television last week.
However, it wouldn’t be too presumptuous to strike sympathy swiftly off the list, nor would it be at all surprising to learn that he was relieved rather than repentant at the results of his cheap decision making.
If anything, it was just one more bullet dodged as he completed another sharp u-turn, doing his utmost to save face in the process. But the process of reversal isn’t over, and the reality of the chancellor’s disastrous budget and his subsequent handling of the fallout haven’t eluded anybody.
It has only helped to throw the popularly held assertion that the government is out of touch into sharp relief. They now appear not only ideologically ill-suited to deal conscientiously and compassionately with the economic situation we face, but are beginning to appear indecisive and out of ideas.
And, underneath all the on-going political blundering and muddling, there is the small matter of Lords reform to see to, which has widely become regarded as ill-timed, unnecessary, too expensive, and low on everyone’s agenda (other than Nick Clegg’s). The current dilemma posed to Labour is whether to jump on the opportunity to maximise coalition tensions or to fulfil Labour’s previous commitment to an elected upper chamber?
All the chatter about the irrelevance of reform at present might seem fair on first hearing. But how hypocritical would it be if Labour were to embark on a silent u-turn and pettifog the issue with constitutionally conservative rhetoric about a referendum, when trust in politicians is ebbing fast and when they appear to the electorate – perhaps more than ever before – as a self-serving bunch whose only true conviction is to connive for that most contemptible of political slogans, ‘power’.
There will be time to woo Clegg – as well as time to agitate coalition relations – but why pass on the chance to improve our model of representation just in order to score some scrappy political points? It is the present model that the majority of people feel most disillusioned by and alienated from right now. And even more poignantly, why turn when it’s turning that has become the national indicator of poor leadership and incoherence?
Real democratic importance lies at the heart of Lords reform. And though it may not strike a chord with the electorate at a glance, nor ring heavy in the collective psyche as one of the great moral pressures of our age, it is something Labour should embrace openly.
With the Conservative party stuck in a sticky cycle of perpetual embarrassment and casually branded as a party lacking cohesion, why not take the chance to make a symbolic leap of conviction and push for reform? It will show a Labour comfortable with scorning the opportunity to play that old party political game to instead make constructive improvements to our system of representation.
If we can afford lavish royal weddings and bankers bonuses; if we can afford to pamper and house the world’s dignitaries and heads of states in opulent five star hotels during the Olympics; if we can spend £2 million a year so Prince Charles can employ staff to tend his country estate in Gloucestershire, it seems a little perplexing that we should call Lords reform undoable. The sense of dichotomy between ‘us’ and the very wealthy is something Labour should rally round – and Lords reform, small as it may be, is a small step to closing that gap.
When there is a sense that the notion of representation is ailing, constitutional reform provides the material to bridge the chasm. While the Tories appear ‘out of touch’ and ‘out of ideas’, and with the public growing increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politics, any chance to show a sense of conviction and to improve our democratic system should be made by Labour – for all the right reasons – even if it is just symbolic. It would be almost frivolous to delay the advancement of these very principles and ideals just to bruise an opposition that is already in self-destruct mode.