Monday, May 17, 2010

The grandfather faultline

During my online meanderings over the last two or three days, one thing that's been impossible to miss is how extraordinarily touchy some Liberal Democrat supporters are just at the moment. There's a discernible tendency to attempt to shout down anyone who dares to suggest that the following two propositions may not be entirely beyond dispute - a) that the Lib Dems had 'no choice' but to go into coalition with the Tories, and b) that the new government will see out its intended five years. My guess is that this is because they want freedom from any responsibility for the dangerous decision they have just made, and because they frankly haven't a clue whether the coalition will last five years but are desperately trying to convince themselves that it will. Rather comically, I was shouted down by Political Betting's Lib Dem (but Tory-friendly) proprietor Mike Smithson on the latter point when I hadn't even mentioned anything about the government's prospects for survival! Ironically, my own best guess - as I stated several days ago - is that our new posh masters will indeed see out their full term, but I certainly don't think that's inevitable. My assessment is of course informed by our experience here in Scotland - back in 1999, coalition seemed such a novel and strange concept (just as it does now to our friends down south), and looking ahead four long years it was very hard to believe that something wouldn't crop up to tear the relationship apart. As we now know, Labour's new best enemies stuck with them through thick and thin, not only for four years, but for eight. The closest thing we came to a flashpoint over that whole period was the free care for the elderly issue.

But that brief moment of crisis offers an intriguing clue as to where one source of danger might lie for this new coalition, so much less natural in composition than its Scottish predecessor. What would happen if there were a parliamentary vote, in which the opposition parties are lined up to support something that the Lib Dems passionately believe in but are expected to vote against because of the pact with the Tories? The ideal scenario would be if Labour under a new leader were to table an amendment on the AV referendum bill, to instead offer the electorate a choice of the more proportional AV+ system. Sadly, that's highly unlikely to happen, courtesy of Labour FPTP dinosaurs such as Tom Harris.

But there's another possibility. Craig Murray has been offering some hints over at his blog about the likely shape of Lords reform, and it's a far cry from the thorough-going democratic overhaul I had imagined when I wrote my post the other day. Terms of office for new elected peers of twelve years (!), and a 'grandfather principle' that allows current peers to stay in parliament for the rest of their lives. Just consider the implications of that. I have no idea who the youngest peer is, but off the top of my head I do know that Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is just thirty-nine years old. Now she may be a Tory, but she's quite a nice Tory, and I don't think it's entirely fair that Britain should find itself in the awkward position of having to wait impatiently for her demise before it can style itself a democracy.

So, there may lie the opposition parties' opportunity. It's not hard to imagine Labour and the nationalist parties tabling an amendment that casts out the 'grandfather principle', thus ensuring that it would not take potentially well over half-a-century to arrive at an elected upper house. Would the Lib Dems really be able to bring themselves to vote against democracy? I have a horrible feeling they might, but I'd certainly relish seeing them put to that test - and to a good few others.

1 comment:

  1. I'm particularly worried about all these people hanging on forever. Yes because they are not democratic, and have absolutely no right whatsoever to be there pontificating and voting on the laws of the land, but because of the sheer size and cost of running this House of "Lords".

    Do you know, if it is the government's intention that its members be raised to the aristocracy and that their offspring continue to be entitied to the style "the honourable" before their names?

    I mean, why can't we just shut the whole thing down, and start it up a few months later with 100 elected members who will be plain Mr and Mrs, like a proper country would do.

    And the idea of 10 oir 15 year tenures is incredible surely. I mean once they have got their backsides on a red bench even the best of them will run out of steam after 5 years, and the worst after about 10 minutes, and yet, there they will be for..... ever.

    Seems like a nice wee job for a guy of around 50.