Despite the evident hypocrisy of their position, Labour are doing exactly the right thing in the House of Lords. Throughout his time as Prime Minister, Tony Blair undermined constitutional principles and conventions; the most recent example was his failure to submit his memoir to the cabinet secretary for scrutiny, something that Churchill happily did with his account of the war. New Labour were happy to continue the Thatcherite trend of diminishing Parliamentary power and accumulating governmental power because it allowed them to make more changes more effectively. The contempt with which Blair treated the Commons (in whose footsteps the Home Office now follow) has become more apparent than ever in recent news stories that he promised support to Bush eight months before seeking parliamentary approval for the war in Iraq.
However, for those of us who had hoped a Conservative government would reverse this trend, those New Labour heathens are now protectors of the faith. The Coalition government is trying to rush through “reforms” of parliament on the back of the AV referendum. Apparently because they are all part of the same thing in principle, the government claims that it is unthinkable to separate the reduction of MPs and homogenisation of constituencies from the referendum. Lord Falkner has repeatedly said that the government can split the bill and have its referendum tomorrow. The coalition ought to take this offer.
People argue that the Lords is undemocratic, has no mandate, and therefore shouldn’t delay the will of the government. But without the unelected Lords making trouble for the coalition, this would be close to an elected dictatorship. Unless a larger proportion of government backbenchers than those who defied the whip on tuition fees are prepared to stand against their potential employer, the government can do what it likes. The huge opposition to Thatcher, and antipathy towards Blair, shows just how immovable a government with a large majority is under our system.
Most of the time the Lords is docile; occasionally it justifies its slumber by roaring louder than the lions under the throne. This is one such occasion. Constituencies are going to be split and spliced, which will be difficult for MPs and irritating for members of the public. This country is defined by its small local communities, even in cities, that have developed with jagged boarders. To draw lines on a map according to numbers is to pander to the sort of idealistic nonsense usually preferred by the left. There is no local consultation for this bill at all. The Tories are trying to correct a system that is inherently in favour of Labour in the name of fairness. It is a leap in the dark.
Much worse are the proposals to remove 50 MPs for the Commons without removing any ministers. This is far more undemocratic than anything the Lords do. Voting for something doesn’t make it legitimate: at the risk of applying Godwin’s law, everything thing the Nazis did was legal; they were voted into power; they passed legitimate laws. Having a democratic mandate is a poor excuse for letting a government force through bad legislation. As Edmund Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” If we were a democracy we’d be voting in the village hall every week, and nobody wants that. We elect representatives to work within a constitution.
So, three cheers for the House of Lords: I hope the filibuster succeeds.