House of Lords: the wrong reforms at the wrong time

Michael Burgess 10.27am

Rejoice! It has ultimately come to pass. Fret no longer, hard-working families of the United Kingdom; the House of Lords Reform Bill that you have so keenly anticipated is finally upon us.

It seeks to establish a 450-strong, 80 per cent elected Upper House by 2025. The remaining 20 per cent is to be made up of appointees. Starting in 2015, the electorate will be able to vote for the first 120 new members using regional lists, a form of proportional representation (PR).

Disappointingly, this regional list system will give a lot more power to political -parties than the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system that was proposed in the earlier Draft Bill.

Unsurprisingly, despite there being in principle some public support for a more democratic upper chamber,polls show that the general public don’t think this should be a priority at a time when we are still deep in the economic mire. A majority of those polled think that some type of reform is a good idea but that it should not be the main concern at this time. Perhaps more surprisingly, marginally more people think that the House of Lords should be left entirely as it is.

Only in Westminster is this a burning issue, with strong feelings on either side. The potential size of a Tory rebellion has prompted warnings that any PPS or Minister not voting with the Government will be sacked or ignored in a future reshuffle. Others on the Government’s backbenches have already expressed their willingness to fall on their sword.

Meanwhile, the Labour party is playing politics by claiming to support the Bill in principle while still seeking to make the Government suffer. Despite Labour’s dubious motives, we should welcome extra time for scrutiny of such large constitutional change.

There is also the issue of a referendum, or in the fact the absence of one. Ed Miliband has renewed his calls for one. He is not alone. Plenty of parliamentarians find it hard to see why a referendum was appropriate for the Alternative Vote but not for a major constitutional change such as this.

The main counter-argument is that since all three major parties included Lords reform in their 2010 manifestos, there is no requirement to ask the people.

However, now that the electorate are aware of the details of the Bill, there is a sound argument that they ought to be consulted before Parliament creates posts for another 360 elected politicians with constituencies five times the size of the average for a MP. Understandably, there is strong public support for a referendum.

Yet ‘more democracy’ alone is not enough; there has to be real accountability. The new senators will struggle to be truly representative and the 15-year terms weaken their accountability. Moreover, the future primacy of the House of Commons is a genuine concern, despite the continued presence of the Parliament Act.

Of course, proper reform of the House of Lords is something that is long overdue. But this could be achieved without time-consuming controversial legislation. By improving the appointments process, removing the remaining hereditary peers, reducing its size and reforming Prime Ministerial patronage, the Lords could be made a more efficient chamber and less of a political retirement home. A move towards an elected, truly representative second chamber could then be explored as a genuine alternative - with the option for a referendum - within the next Parliament.

Instead, we are left with a Bill that has been labeled a “Constitutional monstrosity”. David Cameron supposedly once said that Lords reform was a third term issue. It need not be thrown that far into the long grass, but it ought to be addressed at the right time and with the right reforms. Unfortunately, this Bill fits neither of these criteria.

Follow Michael on Twitter @SuperMacmillan

Egremont’s review of 2011

Nik Darlington and Alexander Pannett 10.30am

This time last year there was no such thing as Egremont, yet in September, thanks to you, our readers, we were voted the 5th best Conservative blog in Britain in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011.

We have been pleasantly and quietly stunned at this ascent, proof that there is room in the blogosphere, amid the shouting and name-calling, for pragmatic, centre-right commentary.

Herein a review of our year: an account of where we have come from, how we have done it and what we have covered.

Twitter. A few words on that. All our posts are automatically tweeted via the Tory Reform Group and those of us on Twitter post and share articles and comments. These are in turn shared by followers (thank you). Since February, direct referrals from Twitter have comprised 13 per cent of our page hits, slightly behind the highest, Facebook, which gives 19 per cent of our referral traffic.

These figures have fluctuated (Twitter has on occasions provided up to one-third of referral traffic) but Facebook is usually ahead. This comes as something of a surprise because it feels that Facebook’s reign as the pre-eminent social media sharing platform is over and Twitter is in the ascendancy. But there you have it. We have a Facebook page too, on which all our articles are linked, and it seems to be working by sending nearly one-fifth of readers our way. Particular thanks go to Aaron Ellis for his assistance with its running.

The power of referral traffic is very clear. Guido Fawkes provided one-tenth of that traffic - or 1,538 hits - but most of it came from one article and in a single day. Saying that, fully one-third of traffic was from search engines, a vindication of our SEO strategy and a comforting sign that readers are actively looking for us (or stumbling across us!) rather than just being told to look at us. Eighteen per cent came direct.

Paul Abbott has achieved a lot this year in his full-time guise as Robert Halfon’s more-than-capable parliamentary confrere, not least setting up the brilliant Parliamentary Academy and being a driving force behind the FairFuelUK campaign that prompted the Chancellor to cancel a planned rise in fuel duty.

But we are sure that Paul would agree with us that his most noteworthy achievement of 2011 was to cause a one-thousand-strong stampede to Egremont on 23rd November. 'Why the Left should love Margaret Thatcher' has had more than 2,000 unique page views and been syndicated elsewhere thanks in part to Paul’s incisive prose and winning analysis but also the mighty sway of Mr Fawkes, who kindly referred to us as ‘the Wets’ blog’ (thank you, Harry).

Generally, readership has been consistent throughout the year, with the occasional noticeable peak. The ‘big bang’ arrived shortly before the Barnsley by-election, 3rd March, as Craig Barrett's article 'Liberal Democrats are looking down the barrel in Barnsley' won positive reviews (one half of the editorial team is gracious enough to concede that his learned-if-not-sensationalist commentary on Oxbridge dons was not the principal cause of attention that day).

Then on 3rd May, Stuart Baldock wrote an insightful piece about the Libyan rebels and there was poignant coverage of UN World Press Freedom Day; but the draw was Cllr Rene Kinzett’s presentation of 'the Conservative argument in favour of the Alternative Vote'. It was a brave and well-argued article deserving of publication. Perhaps not our most ‘popular’ feature of the year if the outcome of the AV referendum was anything to judge by, but it received plenty of attention.

August is usually the sleepy month of politics but this year we had riots. On 9th August, Nik Darlington's in-the-moment reflection ('We know nothing, except we are all to blame for this') attracted Egremont's highest traffic thus far. It was syndicated on the front page of the Huffington Post and received interest from TV station Al-Jazeera.

Media website Journalisted listed the biggest three news stories of 2011 as the Arab Spring, phone hacking and the Eurozone debt crisis. All three topics received plenty of comment on these pages, humble though we would say it was. We would not pretend to be major actors in these debates, let alone lead them. We try to focus on our columnists’ areas of expertise and on less well covered issues. But we always try to ensure our coverage matches the import of events.

Our columnists this year have come from far and wide. We have been honoured to feature blogs from the former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, from John Lamont MSP, and from current Conservative MPs, Robin Walker, Robert Buckland and Rory Stewart.

And to name just a few of our more regular commentators: we have had economic and political analysis from David Cowan, who also won a Spectator economics blogging prize in October. Former TRG chairman, Giles Marshall, always offers a thought-provoking take on the shape of the modern Tory party. Aaron Ellis brings hard work and dedication to the foreign affairs brief. Sara Benwell gives us an edge in the finer details of finance. Meanwhile Craig Barrett’s pithy and profound musings about everything from electoral politics to taxation have been consistently among our highest read articles.

For some months, Jack Blackburn, as well as being our resident expert on film, culture and theology, has been turning his hand to weekly reviews of PMQs. Jack’s 'letter to Mrs Miliband' in November was utterly inspired and as good a PMQs review as you will read on any national broadsheet.

Naturally, most of our readers come from the English-speaking world and as much as 80 per cent from Britain (79 per cent) and the United States (11 per cent). Canada, France, Australia, India and Germany also have sizeable followings and our readers are spread as far and wide as Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Haiti, the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Mongolia, Peru, Latvia, Israel, Vietnam, Japan, South Africa, Sweden and even, dare I say it, Uzbekistan.

And that, as they say, is that. The end.

Merry Christmas and see you in 2012.