I absolutely applaud Harriet Harman’s brilliant response to the Queen’s speech, and the understanding that Labour cannot and must not oppose everything the new Government propose to do. We want to be an effective opposition, and to do so means supporting those measure we can see value in. So first of all, I applaud the moves to remove ID cards, an expensive and damaging misadventure and an issue Labour should close the book on once and for all by not opposing this bill. I applaud the linking of state pensions with earnings. This will make the lives of the elderly easier and reward them better for their service.
But effective opposition must be opposition. And there is plenty in the coalition document and the queen’s speech not just to oppose, but to counter.
Firstly David Cameron’s description of the new Government as “Liberal Conservative” is about right. Certainly they would have a hard time at the moment claiming the other word from the Lib Dems moniker, given current moves to gerrymander Parliament with the 55% rule, the stuffing of the House of Lords and The craven behaviour over Short money.
Let’s examine those issues one at a time.
55% Rule and Fixed Term Parliaments: I think fixed term Parliaments are – on balance – a good thing. I agree that a Prime Minister shouldn’t have the right to call an election at a time that is politically convenient to their party. There are of course problems with fixed term parliament, and we would move to a permanent campaign. It wouldn’t stop the problem of pre-general election spending by Government, just formalise the time-table. However, on balance I am in favour of putting into law a fixed four year term of office to bring a bit more stability to our electoral cycle.
However, the 55% rule is unnecessary and undemocratic. One of the main arguments employed for the forming of this coalition is that it provides “stable Government” in such a way that no other combination would have done. But it is only stable so long as the Lib Dems remain in the coalition. If they bail, the Government becomes a failing Government, limping on without the trust of Parliament because the vote percentages were stitched up to keep the Lib Dems from having the power to bring the Government down. If the 55% rule is brought in without a sunset clause, it will also be a rule for this Parliamentary circumstances that affects all Parliaments for years to come. That’s not good law making.
My modest proposal – thrashed out in my office (and not first proposed by me but by my Tory colleague) would be to bring in a law that stated a new Government has to stipulate by law on arrival in the Comons after every general election, the date of the next election which will be precisely 4 years hence (give or take the few days difference it would need to make it happen on the correct day or days). This only exception to this rule would be if a Government failed sooner than 4 years, and a dissolution of Parliament were voted on with a majority of 50% + 1 as now, a General Election would be held. However, the new Government would not be permitted to overrule the set date of the election, and could only govern between the interm General Election and that date. This would stop the benefit to bringing down an unpopular government of gaining the opposition parties a full Government term, but would also mean that a failed Government could be properly removed if that were the will of the people.
Gerrymandering the Lords: The Coalition Agreement has this to say about the House of Lords:
”We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”
This is complete Gerrymandering. The Lords are an important part of political scrutiny, and were essential in curbing some of Labour’s excesses (for example on 42 day detention). Labour were defeated in the Lords over 400 times. If the ConDems pack the Lords to “reflect the share of the vote” it will give them a massive majority, meaning far less scrutiny of Government legislation. That’s just not good for democracy. The other concern is that these new Peers will all be grandfathered through, stacking the upper chamber not just for this Parliament, but for years and years to come. I am 100% in favour of a fully elected House of Lords – and don’t want to see a place for the Lords Spiritual or the Law Lords in the legislature. But it must be a fair House of Lords, with all current peers abolished and those who wish to return running for election. Grandfathering should not be on the table, and neither should stacking the Lords in the coalition’s favour before any election is held. There were no Lords candidates on my ballot on May 6th.
Short Money: The Lib Dems trying to claim Short money is an utter, utter disgrace. Short money is there for parties in opposition to pay for the support they don’t get from the Civil Service. There are 21 Lib Dem Ministers in Government before we even begin to count PPSs’ and there are only 57 Lib Dem MPs altogether (in the interests of fairness, I should point out that 4 of the Lib Dem ministers are Lords). A huge proportion of the Lib Dem Party is now supported by the Civil Service. Far more so than – for example – the Tories who aren’t trying to claim Short Money, or Labour in 1997 who got no Short money either. An argument I have heard from Lib Dems is that you shouldn’t have to pay to go into power, but you aren’t. It’s a facetious argument. You are receiving a certain amount of support from the state, but in a different way. You also have power. All parties who go into Government lose this money. What make the Lib Dems different? Other than the vast imbalance between their representation and the civil service support they are getting through going into the coalition.
This coalition is going to have to learn it can’t have things both ways. It can’t have the benefits of being a coalition (power, the ability to junk the inconvenient bits of your manifesto etc) and none of the more difficult things that come with it. If they are even remotely serious about “new politics” they will have to rethink all these areas. If they aren’t and this is as silly a strap line as “New Labour” then I suspect it will become just as much of a millstone as that phrase did for the Labour Party – but perhaps far quicker.
Tags: 55%, coalition, fixed term parliaments, gerrymandering, Harriet Harman, House of Lords, ID Cards, Pensions Link, Short money