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Wednesday, May 18, 2011 

Calamity Clegg and House of Lords reform.

If politics can at times be wearingly, soul-crushingly predictable, it's the unexpected and especially now the unscripted that makes following it almost worthwhile. A government only just past its first birthday in office shouldn't be in as much apparent trouble as this one is: ministers not just speaking out of turn and (arguably) getting misinterpreted, but veterans failing to even to begin to defend the policy they're attempting to implement, falling into traps of their own making through simply not accurately representing the current laws on the statute book. Today's clusterfuck with Ken Clarke wasn't just down to his usual blasé method of muddling through without properly knowing his brief, it was as much the fault of his advisers who seemingly either didn't know themselves or failed to get through to him that consensual sex between a 15-year-old and 17-year-old under the current laws is not rape as he repeatedly argued; it's legally defined as unlawful sexual intercourse. Only those under 13 are deemed completely unable to consent.

Just as intriguing is that, as we've seen, the myriad problems and contradictions of this hybrid government are currently not being reflected in either the opinion poll ratings or the local election results for the Conservatives. Andrew Lansley's plans for the NHS might be incredibly unpopular, the enlightened, slightly-Liberal Democrat influenced policy on law and order which got Ken in so much trouble today may be similarly disappointing many, yet for now at least it's having next to no impact.

Apparent as it is that the coalition is simply trying to do too much too quickly, primarily for the two key reasons that it isn't clear that it can survive for the full five-year term and even if it does it fears that Labour could still triumph then, while it's also taken on board Tony Blair's advice to pursue reform while the government is still fresh, the flurry of activity on all fronts might also be distracting enough attention to stop opposition coalescing against one specific policy. The march by around 5,000 disabled people against the welfare cuts received a surprising lack of coverage, especially considering the memories of similar protests during New Labour's first term.

It's in this context that we should perhaps see yesterday's statement from Nick Clegg on what the government intends to do about reforming the House of Lords. Having decided that it isn't a "third-term issue" after all, David Cameron was at the side of his human shield, the roles meant to be temporarily reversed. Given a direct choice between the two, everyone still chose to hit Clegg. Not that this wasn't warranted: still the main option on the table is for the new second chamber, a name for which is also yet to be decided upon, to be partially rather than fully elected. You would have thought that the abject failure of the AV referendum might just have suggested to the Liberal Democrats that compromises on such issues are doomed to failure when you don't in your heart of hearts support what you're arguing for, but apparently not.

If the effective abolition of the Lords is meant to somewhat make up for the doomed attempt to change the voting system for Westminster, giving Clegg and the Lib Dems some crumb of constitutional reform to claim as their legacy, then it's a piss-poor substitute. Even those of us who regard the patronage and hereditary nature of the Lords as a ghastly, hideous, enraging anachronism that we've stubbornly clung to for far too long can hardly claim that it hasn't done a reasonably effective job over the last decade and a half of holding successive governments to account. This is all the more remarkable considering how many acolytes and apparatchiks continue to be stuffed onto the red benches, 789 (not including the 41 on current leave of absence or disqualified from voting) at the last count, something continued at an even faster pace by Cameron.

The arguments for change then have the potential to be just as questionable as those given for the alternative vote, especially when the Clegg solution is a long way away from perfect. His proposal for a "senate" of 300 members, elected potentially through a party list ballot under the single transferable vote, with 100 being voted for every 5 years to serve single, 15-year terms is almost as much of a mess as Jack Straw's dog's breakfast back in 2007. Terms of 15 years seem far too long, and as those elected cannot serve again it brings into question how they could be properly held to account once in office. The Lords also works well currently in spite of the party allegiance of its members, something that elections under such a system would have the potential to undermine. The use of PR will lead to accusations that peers rather than their colleagues in the Commons have more of a democratic mandate, even when the use of FPTP would be completely untenable. It's also woefully unclear just how those currently sitting would be removed over the same 15-year time period: not all are going to hang up the ermine without a fight.

In any event, the chances of any such reform happening in the short-term are laughably small. Even after the proposed joint committee reports its recommendations, it remains doubtful as to just how many Tories would vote with the whip on either an 80% or 100% elected second chamber, while it almost goes without saying that the Lords would dismiss either out of hand. Using the parliament act to force it through would also be dubious when the two coalition parties had differing policies in their manifestos on reform. As much then as this is a further sop to the Liberal Democrats, Cameron and friends can be fairly certain that it will never become law. Moreover, it adds to the pile of legislation and various policy papers that seem to be preventing the coalition from being properly held to account. Calamity Clegg, it's fair to say, has struck once again.

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