Up until today I had absolutely no time for former “Europe” minister Denis MacShane. I thought he was the worst kind of new Labour robot, a man whose sycophancy for all the works of Tony Blair could not be called toadying without risking a class action from toads, who departed only from the gospel according to St Tony only to follow even more slavishly any and all proposals emanating from Brussels.
Well, I still disagree with him on many things, but he’s written an article today in the Telegraph, explaining why he will vote against the government over their latest botched House of Lords reform proposal, which for once makes a great deal of sense.
Now personally, I think the House of Lords as it was composed at the time Tony Blair was first elected worked much better as part of a system of checks and balances than its critics usually admit. The trouble with this government’s reforms is that they usually end up appearing modern or democratic but actually increase the power of the executive. The Blair government has started the process of change and made a mess of it. We need a functioning second chamber, and to command credibility it will have to be a modern reformed one. And that means one which is (at least) mostly elected. Using a proper democratic system, not party lists.
Replacing the descendants of Charles II’s mistresses with Tony’s cronies (and donors) made democracy less rather than more effective: but simply trying to put the clock back would be about as sensible as trying to unscramble an egg.
Denis MacShane points out that the manner in which the House of Commons is being asked to vote on the proposals – which he calls “the most grotesque proposal to emerge from a government in decades” is an absurdity. This is a worrying precedent for democracy in the Commons, never mind the lords.
Credit where credit is due, MacShane’s article is worth reading, so I quote it in full below.
“I will vote against my party and for democracy.
For the first time in my years as an MP I shall consciously vote against my Labour Government. I like being loyal. It is a much despised virtue in politics. The commentariat is always urging MPs to be independent, by which they mean break faith with their parties and colleagues and the manifesto on which they were elected.
As a new Labour MP elected in a by-election in 1994, I watched the serial disloyalty of the Tories as they sneered and chiselled at the Major government over Europe or any issue that seized their egos. Today, a new doctrine of cabinet collective irresponsibility has infected Labour. Ministers vie with one another to stand on picket lines against decisions taken by colleagues, to trash America, to criticise the behaviour of colleagues, and to brief anonymously against the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor.
My profession of loyalty is not some creepy desire to please the whips or suck up to a Prime Minister who removed me from office in a 20-second phone call. It is a deep political response to the supreme need of a party to have the confidence in itself that allows it to win and hold power.
So why, then, will I go into the opposition lobby next week? It is over the proposal to tear up more than seven centuries of history and require MPs to sit rather than stand to vote. The Government wants MPs to take a multiple-choice exam on its proposals to reform the House of Lords. Instead of MPs voting in lobbies for or against different proposals, scratch cards will be handed out, which we can take away to list in order of preference what the composition of the Lords might be.
The reason for this absurdity is that the Government is willing to do away with the way the Commons has always voted on legislation, but is unwilling to show any leadership on the legislation needed to modernise the House of Lords. The Lords has more members than the Commons. While the US Senate manages with 100 members, and the German and French second chambers have fewer than half the number of the Bundestag or Assemblée Nationale, the British second chamber grows like Topsy.
Moreover, the system chosen to select Lords after the cull of some hereditaries has become an embarrassment. The appointment of Lords by party leaders, even if sifted through a committee of the great and the good, is now one of the more grotesque and undignified aspects of the British constitutional system. Had Labour opted for an elected Lords, the Prime Minister would have been spared the police investigation that is doing such damage to his last months in office. If Labour has its Lord Cashpoint, David Cameron has his Lord ATM. When the present police investigation touching Downing Street is over, there will be new inquiries and media ferocity on how other parties have raised their money in recent years.
All my political life, I have argued that a smaller, elected chamber is the only way forward. If that means more power over the executive because the Commons does not know how to hold government to account, well, so be it. As a minister, I responded courteously to the musings of the retired generals, diplomats and functionaries who sat on the Lords committees with which I had to deal. But there was never any sense that they influenced government policy, any more than attending an agreeable dinner at high table in Oxford to hear clever men and women declare what should be done alters the direction of what the state does.
In January 2003, Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and I all shared a tiny RAF plane flying back from France. We had been attending a Franco-British summit with our opposite numbers, and were heading back to vote on reforming the House of Lords. Robin Cook had been unable to persuade his cabinet colleagues to support his own preference for a largely elected second chamber. In the plane, Tony Blair kept his counsel, though it was an open secret he had ordered the whips to mobilise votes to stop any reform that reduced his power of patronage by nominating Lords. Charles Clarke and I made clear we would vote for the maximum number of elected peers. Jack Straw joked that he would get the pilot to tip us into the Channel, as he was a strong supporter of an all-appointed Lords.
Now Straw has changed his mind. This is to his credit, but he only will go so far as to support a 50 per cent elected House of Lords. The Prime Minister, it must be assumed, has not altered his view. As a result, there is no government leadership of any sort on this issue. Nor is there any definition of what the Lords should do, or what its powers should be. Still less is there any challenge to the patently anti-democratic idea that representatives of just one British religion should have legislative power. If the Cabinet does not know what it wants, how on earth are MPs going to make up their minds? If the Government shows no lead, how can the nation follow?
So, in the most grotesque proposal to emerge from a government in decades, Labour MPs are told they are on a three-line whip to destroy the way the Commons has always done business, but they are on a free vote on the question that will then follow which, because of the single transferable vote, will have to finish in a definite proposal.
The metaphor used by Jack Straw is that he wants to avoid the "train crash" of 2003. Yet the failure of MPs then to support a given option was a rational response to the failure of Straw and the Cabinet to support Robin Cook's elected House of Lords. The Commons votes that led to no decision being taken gave rise to a profoundly important, and wholly democratic, outcome. It was the failure of the executive to lead that made the Commons say that if cabinet members cannot agree, then don't ask us to make up their minds for them.
For 700 years, the Commons has been a parliament - a place of talking. Presence and talking in the chamber, in the lobbies, in the tea and dining rooms is the sine qua non of British democracy. The votes are taken by men and women standing up and walking through lobbies, talking one to another as they move to vote. It is a physical act of propinquity that amazes politicians from other countries who do not have the intimate access to ministers and party bigwigs that lies at the heart of our parliamentary system.
I do not doubt Jack Straw's sincerity in wanting a decision, any decision, to show that Lords reform is possible. The only one that makes sense to me is an elected chamber. I wish the Government had confidence in this plain, radical and democratic concept. But if the Cabinet will not show leadership, it cannot expect to demand loyalty on how the vote is taken.
It is wrong to remove from the Commons its right to vote in the way it has always done. Parliament should vote to keep voting as usual. And then the Cabinet should offer leadership in favour of an elected House of Lords."