Tag Archives: Nick Clegg

The Tory right are telling Cameron to be prepared to end the Coalition. Nick Clegg, take note.

Rumours always come connected to a catch-22. That is: say nothing, and speculation spreads; say something, and you admit the existence of the very problem you seek to dismiss. So it is with efforts exerted by Messrs Cameron and Clegg – who this week made a joint appearance at a railway depot in the West Midlands – to brush aside growing rumours of the Coalition’s early demise – giving weight to the rumours themselves.

But cracks there are – big ones; each week it seems like the paper-thin-plaster is becoming more and more transparent. The Prime Minister failed to come good on his promise to his deputy that he would deliver plans to reform the House of Lords. The Conservative leader was instead forced to watch the embarrassing spectacle of 91 of his MPs defy the party line on the issue and rebel.

Only, on this issue, the junior partners of the Coalition have a serious card they play in return. Up on the policy-making horizon are plans to review MPs’ constituency boundaries and reduce the size of the House of Commons. If realised, these plans could give the Tories another dozen or so seats. (As the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley rightly points out: that the Conservatives have their hearts set of securing this small number of seats speaks volumes about their own prospects at the next election.) It is now widely reported that if Cameron fails to delivery House of Lords reform for Clegg, Clegg will see to it that his party kills off the boundary review. “All Lib Dems”, Rawnsley predicts, “ministers included, will vote against the changes.” This is not just another reporter’s rumour; senior Lib Dem figures like David Laws, Sir Menzies Campbell and Lynne Featherstone have hinted at a similar threat.

If this happens, Rawnsley says, some Conservatives predict “the anger among Tories will be so intense that it will be the death knell of this government”. Just this week, Graham Brady, chairman of the prolific 1922 Committee announced that the Coalition partners should have “a moment of separation”, well before the next election, so as to carve out a distinctive identity. There has been much talk of late in the right-wing press that this moment of separation should come sooner rather than later. On the influential Conservative Home blog, Andrew Lilico declares himself to be “almost certain” that at some point in during 2014 the Liberal Democrats could withdraw and grant the Tories a minority government.

The Liberal Democrats are all but dead. They now poll in single digits, often neck-to-neck with the UK Independence Party. Almost three in four members of the public say that Nick Clegg is doing badly. Whatever you think about the cuts, tuition fees or the environment, the Lib Dems have actually already achieved a lot of what Nick Clegg desperately wanted to do: show that they can be a party responsible and mature in Government. On this, they have done well. They have been disciplined to the point of suicide in putting aside their own desires and voting through coalition policies on welfare, healthcare and immigration. And the Lib Dem backbenchers, unlike some of their Conservative counterparts, have refrained from openly criticising the Coalition.

There are real parallels between the liberal conservative Cameron claimed to be, and the Orange Book strand of liberalism that Clegg champions. Nonetheless, he must have known that going into bed with the Tories would result in people leaving the Lib Demos in droves. And it did. But it could well be the case that although Clegg wanted to show people the Lib Dems could be a party of government, he never expected to govern again. Instead, he put all his money on delivering two major changes to our democracy and leave, in his wake, a long-lasting Lib Dem legacy. These are: introducing the Alternative Vote to Britain and reforming its upper chamber of unelected peers and bishops. Having already failed to deliver the first, it now looks very likely that he will fail to deliver the second. All the while the Tories boast that they have now implemented around 80 per cent of their manifesto.

Having failed to deliver this legacy, there is little that Clegg can give his party to reassure them that their time in Government has been worth it. “We made Tory reforms less bad” is not exactly a message to fire and fuel public appetite when it comes to knock on doorsteps in 2015. In the next election it is highly unlikely the Liberal Democrats will form yet another coalition with the Conservatives and show the world they are just an add-on to the Tory machine.

But they could begin to set out their own agenda in the hope of another Coalition – only this time with Labour, who are consistently leading the polls and, for the first time in two years, shown to be considered by the public as the most competent political party. This would first require some serious efforts to detoxify currently poisonous relations between the two parties.

Having set out an incredibly radical programme of reform – to education, welfare, healthcare – the Government is now in its implementation phase; most of its big ideas have already been declared. But the Government is still failing to fully achieve its biggest goal of all: reducing the deficit, cutting borrowing and the public debt. Debt has increased from £1 trillion to £1.4. The Office for Budget Responsibility says another £17 billion worth of cuts are needed by 2017. The age of austerity has only just begun and the lights have dimmed on any hopes of a long-lasting liberal legacy.

Perhaps it’s time to leave, Nick.


Why reform the House of Lords? Why not abolish it completely?

Last week, the Government published plans for a reformed House of Lords. Explaining the principle behind a mainly elected upper chamber, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: “at the end of the day this just comes down to a really, really simple idea; and it’s called democracy”.

Over the next three elections, the Government proposes, the House of Lords will reassemble as a chamber in which 80 per cent of its members will be elected; the remaining 20 per cent will be chosen by an Appointments Commission. The new ‘lords’ (although they won’t be allowed to call themselves that) will be restricted to serving single terms of fifteen years. They will be elected via Proportional Representation into seats covering whole regions – bigger than the constituencies covered by MPs in the House of Commons.

On the surface, Clegg looks well positioned to push through what could well be the defining legacy of the Lib Dems’ time in government. The public agree with Nick; 76 per cent support reforming the upper chamber, which, as YouGov President, Peter Kellner rightly points out, “defies every democratic principle”. The parties agree with Nick; all three leaders support reform; all three included it in their manifesto and all three are pressuring their own MPs to back change. The Prime Minister is reported to have told Clegg that he’ll do everything in his power to deliver House of Lords reform. For more than a century, politicians have pursued the same goal and failed. It is “time to make progress”, insisted David Cameron.

A little deeper, and Clegg faces a slow, savage slugging match. No. 10 sources are reported as saying they expect “blood on the walls, floor and ceiling” in the form of a fierce rebellion from backbench Tories, who will viciously defend the status quo, and Labour opportunists, homing in on a perfect opportunity to derail the Coalition. Some Conservative backbenchers have described the plans as a “constitutional monstrosity”; others have said they will resign over the issue. News outlets report that the very timetabling of debate could be sabotaged, derailing any hopes (if there ever were any) of a clean, quick win.

Among the public, attitudes are actually a little more nuanced than statistics suggest. Yes, the majority of people care about an elected lords, but – as I’ve written on these pages before – they don’t care very much – less than a fifth believe it is an urgent matter right now. Moreover, while Clegg is insisting reform is premised on the principle of democracy, most of the public think they should have a say in the matter – only a quarter think that change should be enacted without a public vote. The prospect of reform costing us money in an age of austerity is another turn off. Finally, as Kellner says, come polling day, and people will become much more interested in details than they are now. Indeed, scrutinise the small print of Clegg’s plans, and a real risk emerges – that, in pursuit of democracy, an elected upper chamber will be both more powerful, and, in the eyes of many voters, more legitimate than the current Commons.

First, newly elected members of the House of Lords would serve longer terms than their Commons counterparts, allowing them more freedom to pursue their own agenda without being held to account by voters. Second, they would represent larger areas – and most likely more people – than MPs in the lower chamber. Third, they would be elected via the PR system. At the moment, MPs – including Nick Clegg, of course – are elected via the First Past The Post system – the “choice of dinosaurs”, according to Clegg. There is not space here to explain in great detail why so many – including this author – see PR as more democratic than the current system, but the risk remains that members of an elected upper chamber could claim a more legitimate right to be there than MPs like Clegg and Cameron. This is, in all probability, a key goal of Clegg’s. After the landslide ‘no-to-AV’ (Alternative Vote – or PR-‘lite’) last year, embedding PR within the House of Lords could well reignite debate about introducing it to the House of Commons.

Nick Clegg should be applauded; his plans to abolish the House of Lords throw up some much-needed questions about the state of our democracy. But, when it comes to Lords reform, the biggest question of all is one that few are asking: why have a House of Lords at all?


House of Lords Reform? Meh

Earlier this week, The Guardian splashed on the results of a new YouGov poll, which showed that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords – a key policy favoured by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. The poll, commissioned by Unlock Democracy, revealed that just 5% of the public favour the status quo – a fully appointed second chamber.

The Guardian hailed the results as a ‘boost’ (and a much-needed one; Clegg’s party is polling at a woeful 9% – neck and neck with the UK Independence Party) for the Lib Dem leader. For many Lib Dems, battered from the rise in tuition fees for university students, bruised from losing a previous referendum on changing the voting system in the UK, reform of the House of Lords is one of the few flagship Lib Dem policies remaining intact, if not yet realised.

However, scratch beneath the surface and this ‘boost’ is more of a bump, if that; the key difference being not how many people support reform, but how much do they care? In an article for The Observer, Nadhim Zahawi, who co-founded and is a former CEO of YouGov, drew attention to private polling that the number of people who thought House of Lords should the main priority for this government over the next year: 0.

The president of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, has acknowledged that House of Lords reform isn’t seen by voters as a” top campaigning issue”. Elsewhere, respected commentators like John Humphrys have flagged the dangers of the Government being seen as spending considerable effort on something many people feel doesn’t actually matter. At a time when over two and a half million people are unemployed and with Britain in a double-dip recession, which economists warn could last until summer, the prospect of spending £100 million on a referendum – and even more if actual reform is to be brought about – won’t have people rushing to the ballot box or picking up placards.

There are good arguments for and against reforming the upper chamber. Many are opposed to the very principle of an unelected House of Parliament – a practice present in only 15 other countries worldwide. Others are concerned that an elected second house would result in US senate-style gridlock, and highlight the good – if mostly invisible – work of peers like Jane Campell and Dee Doocey in opposing the Government’s regressive welfare and legal aid cuts. Some like Polly Toynbee have called for the abolition of the House altogether.

Now is certainly not a good time to press on with a reform that is not a priority for voters. But, as Steve Richards rightly points out, ‘now’ is no better or worse than any other. With the public behind him (if not very strongly), Nick Clegg has a chance to push through on a reform that will change the very make up of British democracy. Considering that so many people support the policy, but so few (9%) support his party, it is a chance he will almost certainly never have again.

What do you think? Should the House of Lords be reformed? Is it a priority for Government? Join the debate and leave your comments below.


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