Clegg's shifting rhetoric on Lords reform

A detail of the Lords throne
A detail of the Lords throne
Alex Stevenson By

As Douglas Carswell learned to his cost earlier this week, anyone who points out that senior politicians are changing their tone risks receiving a brusque reply. Fortunately Nick Clegg is not obliged to reply to this blog post, so I can tentatively risk the suggestion that his approach to Lords reform may have shifted ever so slightly today.

I have sat through interminably long sessions on the deputy prime minister's constitutional reform portfolio, but cannot recall him ever underlining the importance of party politics as a reason to do away with the House of Lords in its current state.

Giving evidence to the political and constitutional reform committee this morning, the Liberal Democrat leader was in full flow as he argued the case to "update our venerable democratic institutions". "There's been an increasing party politicisation of the House of Lords," Clegg complained. Rather than pushing through "incremental change, where it's become more party political, let's do it through the front door", he argued.

The deputy PM has first-hand experience of the bruising effect of partisanship in the upper House. From the unprecedented filibustering that very nearly derailed his electoral reform referendum, all the way through to the 11 defeats suffered by the coalition on the legal aid bill, the Lords has been a real thorn in this government's side.

After the banishment of the hereditaries the character of the upper House has slowly been changing. It is becoming bolder, perhaps in part because it senses its own imminent demise. Those independent crossbenchers are often given to uniting en masse against the government. And there can be no doubt the influx of old-school New Labour bruisers who entered the House after 2010 have been causing trouble, too.

Still, introducing elections for at least 80% of the second chamber does not seem like the most effective way of reducing the amount of party politics in the Lords.

Any other business

This morning's evidence session also contained some other noteworthy points.

The coalition continues to steadfastly deny that any of its constitutional reforms are remotely connected to each other. Fixing the length of parliamentary terms and the AV referendum, for example, had been randomly "decanted into the same bill", Clegg insisted, adding: "There is no reliance on our support for a coalition government agreement commitment for progress on unrelated or other significant parallel constitutional reform issues."

The sustainability of this approach, if it has ever really existed in practice, seems distinctly improbable once boundary changes and Lords reform collide.


Two areas where overlap between reform areas is surely inevitable is the impact are the shaking up of the electoral map and changes to the way voters are registered. It's widely thought that the latter shift will result in many people dropping off the electoral register entirely. This could then trigger further boundary changes upheaval for the 2020 elections.

Constitutional reform minister Mark Harper doesn't think so. "The evidence suggests the current register is not in as great a shape as some people complacently thought it was," he claimed. "I think we don't run a risk of a significant noticeable drop at all."


Clegg and Harper have an excellent working relationship, it seems. The businesslike tenor of their working habits was underlined by the deputy PM, who views the whole constitutional reform agenda as being a series of boxes to be ticked.

"It's very important we don't lull ourselves into thinking for that reason somehow the political and constitutional reform agenda is no longer important or there is any less resolve on the part of the government to press on in a consistent and businesslike manner," he said, in response to growing reports that his reform portfolio is struggling to make progress on its biggest challenges.

"We are absolutely resolved to just persist consistently, thoroughly, perhaps sometimes quietly in pushing forward a broad range of reforms to ensure our range of democratic institutions and processes are as accountable and transparent as they possibly can be."

This work in progress, already having been set back through the electoral reform referendum defeat, is yet to endure its biggest blow. We can look forward to May 9th when the Lords reform difficulties begin in earnest; but for a taste of the troubles to come, look no further than Monday 23rd's report on from MPs and peers. Their assessment of Clegg's draft legislation is likely to set the ball rolling on numerous issues of disagreement, which experts tell me will eventually bring down the bill for good.


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