Ministers must avoid a referendum at all costs if they are to succeed in reforming the House of Lords. But that doesn't mean the public doesn't deserve one.
A lot is at stake here. More than just the fortunes of the coalition, whose deputy prime minister has a lot of political capital staked on this reform. More than just the future jobs of the peers who currently inhabit the red benches of the Lords. This is about a huge change in the nature of the upper House, creating a dual-headed monster of a parliament whose behaviour would be very far from certain.
This isn't a policy issue, like the massive shakeup of the NHS, where the coalition was able to get its head down and eventually get its way. This is a change to the powers of the Lords and, by extension, the Commons. It will have just as big an impact on who runs this place as the electoral reform referendum held last year. So the public have the right to be consulted.
Yes, referenda are not cheap to hold. But the current era of austerity shouldn't enter into calculations about whether or not the vote should be held. Times of hardship come and go, but this change will be around for centuries. Stumping up the cash, and justifying spending taxpayers' money on such a purpose, is a problem for the politicians presiding over the vote, yes, but it shouldn't affect the question of whether we have one or not.
Lords reform is all about empowering the public, the Conservative constitutional reform minister Mark Harper said this lunchtime. "We're very clear we wanted to remove power from politicians and give it to the public, and this is very much in that spirit," he said. Harper was talking about the changes in general, not about whether we should let the public have their say. On whether voters should be empowered over the question of the change, he is utterly against their being involved.
Yes, it was in all three parties' manifestos at the 2010 general election. But the details were not, and these are critical. A broadbrush commitment to some sort of change does not authorise it by itself. Even small details like whether members of the new House would be barred from serving more than one term, for example, make a huge difference: balancing accountability and the independence of peers are not minor afterthoughts. They are all critical. So the final package should be prepared and set before the public to deliver their verdict.
Unfortunately the debate about these reforms is already obscured by the thinly-veiled agendas of campaign organisations. Those in favour of an elected Lords are in general opposed to a referendum, on the fairly accurate grounds that the public would be tempted to reject any proposal put to them by ministers. It has been suggested that a vote only need take place if a chunk of society bothers to sign a petition calling for it. Should governments only be formed if a sufficient percentage of voters bother to turn out on polling day? It's a sad day when pro-democracy organisations are harnessing the apathy of the general public to protect their interests.
An elected Lords would, I suspect, empower parliament. Britain's politicians would find a way, through concordats and conventions and, above all else, politics, to make the new system work. But there is a tension between the organic freedom to develop flexibly which has served our constitution so well over the centuries and the need to make sure that the primacy of the Commons is protected. This was the issue which the joint committee on the coalition's draft Lords reform bill, which completed its work today, spent the most time on. It is critical that this headache is resolved.
Finding agreement on this, and many other important details, may prove difficult to achieve. It's emerged today that there were 15 divisions held by the joint committee of peers and MPs during its work. Fifteen areas where consensus between and within the parties could not be found. It's not just the question of a referendum which is divisive: whether the reformed Lords should be wholly or fully elected, how much peers should be paid, whether bishops should continue to be included... the list goes on.
The prognosis for Lords reform is not a positive one. Many Conservative MPs are determined to fight the change to the hilt. Labour will not be placated unless a referendum is agreed to. The current Lords is minded to defy the Commons, forcing the use of the Parliament Act in what will be a bruised and bloodily protracted constitutional struggle. None of this will help reinforce a 'yes' vote if the public are consulted.
Nick Clegg knows this, which may be why is so quick to point out that there was no referendum when hereditary peers were given the chop in 1999. That was a reform of 'composition', he has argued, much like the current proposed change. In fact they are fundamentally different. Hereditary peers were being replaced by another unelected set of peers, chosen by the government rather than chance of birth, to fulfil exactly the same job. An elected Lords, empowered by democratic mandate, would be entirely different.
Such are the obstacles to reform that the government will only, in its heart of hearts, consider success as a very distant dream. It appears to understand that giving the public their say will be one of the biggest obstacles, and is acting accordingly. None of that undermines the simple claim that legitimacy rests in testing the opinion of the country. Any reform which dodges the public will only damage politics' battered reputation still further.
These are exciting times for those interested in constitutional issues, but they are also depressing ones. For the route to success is unavoidably blocked. Over the next two years we'll be watching the coalition set out, falter and ultimately fail on this journey.