By Ian Dunt
Senior figures in the Liberal Democrats raised the stakes in the debate over Lords reform today, as early signs of civil war started to break out.
Former leader Paddy Ashdown said an appointed House of Lords was “an affront to our democracy”, as he responded to an article by party grandee David Steel which warned Nick Clegg’s plans could “undermine the primacy” of the Commons.
The argument between the two former Liberal leaders hints at the divisions which could hit all three main parties over the issue, as parliamentarians scrutinise plans to have an 80% elected second chamber.
“Nick Clegg has been right to argue that if we have an elected upper house it should be wholly elected, yet the government paper contains the option of having 20% appointed,” Lord Steel wrote in the Observer.
“The argument for that is testimony to the specialist expertise which exists in the present unelected house and which would otherwise be lost. Yet its proponents cannot have considered what would happen if the votes of the future 20% unelected were outrageously to sway a matter against the elected majority in both houses.
“An increasing number of MPs are also recognising the dangers of an elected upper house undermining the primacy of the House of Commons.”
He continued: “The House is becoming irritated by being asked to consider long-term changes to an elected chamber, whilst the need to reform the present one gets neglected.
“The risk the coalition government now faces is that their plans will get bogged down in endless argument in both houses, clogging up valuable parliamentary time which would be better employed on more deserving causes.
“I am old enough to recall that is precisely what happened in the late sixties. History looks as though it may repeat itself.”
Mr Clegg’s proposal of an 80% elected Lords goes against his own professed desire for a wholly elected second chamber, but he accepted the compromise to keep Tory traditionalists on board.
The 80% suggestion has been made several times before, including by Labour figures Robin Cook and Jack Straw, as it allows for a more representative House which can include experts.
Labour’s response to Mr Clegg’s proposals attacked the 80% plan however, with shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan saying the party would only support a wholly elected chamber.
With critics circling on both sides and scant interest from the press, Mr Clegg faces an uphill battle to get his reforms passed in time for a third of the members to be elected in 2015.