Interview: Peter Facey and the long game of Lords reform

Peter Facey is director of Unlock Democracy
Peter Facey is director of Unlock Democracy
Alex Stevenson By

A century of failure on Lords reform isn't putting off Peter Facey, the director of campaigning group Unlock Democracy.

Yes, the coalition is putting forward a bill which, if successful, will turn the House of Lords into an 80% elected second chamber.

Unfortunately its chances of succeeding are being assessed by some constitutional experts in very gloomy terms. Peers are vowing to fight to the bitter end. Tory backbenchers are preparing to scupper the bill in the Commons. Cross-party unity without a referendum looks elusive.

Despite all these headwinds, Facey refuses to be downcast. "I'm an optimist," he tells me. We're sat in his office at Unlock Democracy's new headquarters. The place has a slightly scruffy feel - exactly what you'd expect for an organisation which spends its time pursuing constitutional reform. Half academic and half campaigners, this earnest bunch are looking to wrap up the unfinished business that began 101 years ago.

Facey doesn't accept that a referendum on Lords reform couldn't end with a win for the 'yes' campaign. "The problem is plonking it at the end [of the legislative process] makes it more difficult to win," he says. The bill will be mauled so much, with compromises at every turn, that the public will inevitably be more likely to reject it. This is the fault of "the process, not the issue".

I had suspected that, like all campaigning groups facing a tricky issue like this, Unlock Democracy is being forced to resort to this sort of process-politicking to advance its agenda. But actually its call for a referendum only if five per cent of the public call for it in a petition seems to fit in with its broader goals. That commitment to direct democracy wherever possible springs from the 2007 merger the New Politics Network, which advanced the softer elements of constitutional reform, with Charter 88 - a campaigning group set up in the later Thatcher years against the 'elective dictatorship' of British government.

Support for referenda is a given, as you'd expect. Still, on an issue like Lords reform Facey is ambivalent about whether one is actually necessary. "There is a very good chance to win a referendum on Lords reform," he says. "The question is, is one necessary? Either a parliamentary process or a referendum are options. Either are acceptable."

Given the emphatic 'no' vote in 2011's electoral reform referendum, it's no wonder Facey is so cautious about their utility. Much of Unlock Democracy's work is less political, in the sense of having to deal with the whims of the general public, and more about winning over the Westminster village. The use of e-petitions is an obvious example of this. These are currently controlled by the government but administered by parliament.

The Commons is struggling to cope with the implications of direct democracy, as the travails of its backbench business committee show. There are "fundamental flaws" with the way the system works, Facey says. Too many members of the public assume signing an e-petition will make a difference, when it actually won't even guarantee the issue gets debated. Not even if it gets more than 100,000 signatures. Then there's the fact that a large percentage are excluded simply because of their lack of access to the internet. "With a little more thought you could turn it into something with a bigger impact," Facey adds. "The problem with political and constitutional reform always ends up in the detail. I just wish they'd done it better."

Facey is less partisan about the performance of the coalition in general. I wonder what impact a Tory-only government would have had. The answer, he says, is not actually that much. Lords reform would probably have been only a third or fourth-term priority for the Conservatives, it's true. But police and crime commissioners, and elected mayors, were Tory ideas, not Lib Dem ones. The two parties had a lot of overlap in the localism bill. And it was Lib Dem peers, after all, who "killed" the idea to give the public local referenda powers. Property developers had lobbied against this. It was "a group of Lib Dem peers who felt very uncomfortable with the idea of direct democracy being imposed on local authorities", he explains. For a party supposedly committed to localism, Facey is clearly not impressed.

The passing failings of this government or that government will only go so far to assuage his desire for reform, I sense. What's wrong with this country's politics, I ask?

"How long have you got?" he replies, laughing loudly."We could literally be here all day."

Top of the list is Britain's hopelessly centralised political system. Facey quotes an MP as telling him: "I'd be in favour of parliamentary sovereignty, if we actually had any." In the US, or Germany, or Australia, there are "different places to change things" beyond just central government. In America the focus of lobbyists isn't on Washington, it's on state capitals and local towns. In Britain, central government keeps hold of its powers with an iron grip. The political culture keeps it this way.

It's even hardwired into the rules of the game. "For most countries in the world constitutions are about constraining government. In the UK the constitution is about enabling the government to do things." Sounds like a closed political system, I suggest. "A dying political system," Facey corrects.

The other big problem faced by Britain's politics is the public becoming increasingly disengaged. This goes beyond the decline of political parties. Facey blames the technocratic nature of the modern state. Governing, he says, is about management. So people start to view their rulers in the same way that they view Tesco's: an important part of their life which they expect good results from, but not something that they feel any real ownership of or power over. "I'm not saying everybody wants to be engaged," he makes clear. "They want to have the option of being engaged, and feeling that if they do get engaged they can make a difference."

Fixing these problems is going to take a long, long time. But as Facey concedes, that's just the way it is when you're in the game of trying to fix the way a country - especially a country whose traditions are as entrenched as Britain's. "If you're interested in quick wins, political and constitutional reform is not for you," he says, half-joking but completely serious.

It's that long view which makes him such an optimist on Lords reform. Look how far we've got already, he says: only a few years ago the idea that a government would bring forward serious legislation proposing change was viewed as unthinkable. It was the same in 2003, when the Commons rejected the idea of an elected Lords. Just four years later it had changed its mind. "Lords reform is a long game," Facey says. "It's the cricket of constitutional reform - it's a full-blown Test match!"

The days of the unelected Lords will be numbered even if the bill fails, he believes. If the Commons votes for the reform and it subsequently gets scuppered in the Lords, change will become a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'. But Facey hasn't given up on the Lords reform bill just yet. He remains upbeat. "I am quietly confident we can prove the sceptics wrong," he says, his smile turning to a grin.

"I'm not going to bet my house on it - my wife would kill me."


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