Coalition chasm widens over Lords reform vote
Today, the UK government faces its most disruptive rebellion since taking power. With Conservative MPs set to defy their leaders on Lords reform, the split in the coalition is widening.
The British House of Commons is divided sharply into two sections: on one side, the government; on the other, the opposition. Each side is expected to act as a united whole: they cheer together, jeer together and, most of the time, vote together. Today, however, the system is in disarray.
The Commons is debating a proposal to change the House of Lords from an appointed chamber to an elected one. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (who share power in a coalition government) both officially support this ‘bill.’ So does Labour, in principle.
With all three major parties backing reform, could anything possibly stand in its way? Yes: politics. Knowing that many Conservatives personally hate the idea of Lords Reform, the Labour Party announced that they would vote against the bill, justifying their decision on technical grounds.
Only a handful of Conservatives needed to join Labour for the proposal to be scuppered and the government embarrassed. Yesterday, sure enough, seventy Conservative MPs signed an open letter fiercely denouncing Lords reform. The bill looks set for defeat.
The governing coalition has always been a fragile alliance. Prime Minister David Cameron and other top Conservatives struggle to hold together a group that includes centre-left Liberal Democrats on one side, and uncompromising right-wing Conservatives on the other. Each faction suspects that the other has undue influence on government policy.
Now, cracks between the two sides threaten to plunge the entire government into crisis. Many Lib Dems cherish Lords reform as a way in which they could stamp their mark on UK politics; arch-Tories, meanwhile, see the bill as an outrageous attempt by a small leftist party to destroy the UK constitution. And the opposition Labour party is all too happy to exploit this division.
Government whips will have a busy day of coaxing and threatening the rebels, in an effort to get the bill back on track. But this is almost certain to be in vain – and, if it is, this government will be on more precarious ground than ever before.
‘For shame!’ cries much of the public. In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the second world war, our childish politicians can do nothing but bicker. These selfish fools, they say, are only interested in indulging their own petty rivalries, oblivious to the economy collapsing about their heads.
But others are more forgiving of the arguing MPs. It might look like a mess, they say; but really it is democracy in action. Of course politicians are pursuing different agendas: they were elected by different people. Intrigues, compromises and shifting alliances are just a sign of party politics at work.
- Could democracy exist without squabbling and rivalry?
- Should politicians vote according to their consciences, or according the manifesto on which their party was elected?
- Write a dialogue between a Tory rebel and Prime Minister David Cameron. The rebel is arguing that Conservatives must stick to their principles; Cameron pleads the case for compromise to maintain the stability of the government.
- Have your own class vote on Lords reform. Everybody gets a chance to speak for 30 seconds in support or opposition; at the end, put it to a vote.
Some People Say...
“Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians.’ – Charles de Gaulle, 1890-1970”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Could this be the end of the coalition government?
- The Lib Dems will be furious if Lords reform is scuppered, but they will probably stop short of leaving the coalition altogether. Their most likely response would be to withdraw support from other policies that the Tories support. Still, this could do significant damage to the coalition, and an eventual breakup is far from impossible.
- What then?
- First, the Conservatives could try creating a ‘minority government’ – that is, one without a parliamentary majority. If they failed, the Labour party could try to create a governing coalition. With the current share of MPs it is unlikely that either of these would work; in that case, the Queen would call another general election and the country would vote in a new parliament.
- An elected one
- The current house of Lords is mostly appointed by the Queen and parliament, though some seats are reserved for bishops and some for aristocrats. The new one will be mostly elected, though some places remain for appointed experts. Why so complicated? Because the bill has been subject to plenty of compromise already.
- Technical grounds
- Labour are arguing that parliament should be given more chances to debate the issue of Lords reform, since it is such a major constitutional change. That is not an unreasonable demand at all; however, if they got their way it would allow Tory rebels to block the bill’s passage through parliament by prolonging the debate until its allotted time had passed.
- The UK constitution
- It is often said that the UK has no constitution. This is not quite true – it’s just that unlike the US or French constitutions, Britain’s is not contained in a single document. Instead it is contained in an exceedingly complicated jumble of legislation, legal documents and traditions.
- Government whips
- In parliament, ‘whips’ ensure that MPs generally vote according to the party line. The word ‘whip’ is used to describe both the command, and the person who gives it. There are three types of whip, in increasing order of urgency: a single-line whip (not at all binding), a two-line whip (a clear instruction) and a three-line whip (a stern command).