Abandoning the Conservative party over gay marriage is politically self-defeating

Nik Darlington 12.12pm

YouGov has just published the results of a poll that shows more than half of the population are in favour of changing the law to allow same-sex marriage.

Fifty-five per cent of people support the Government’s controversial proposals. However, Conservative voters are divided with 46 per cent in favour, 48 per cent opposed and the remaining 6 per cent undecided.

Meanwhile, 60 per cent of Labour supporters favour the change, as do 77 per cent of Liberal Democrats.

The polling demonstrates how divisive the matter has become. While it supports the Government’s conviction that a majority of people support marriage for same-sex couples, it is only by a whisker.

I remain a bit befuddled about why the policy was suggested at this point in time, and certainly without an electoral mandate to provide some credible covering fire.

Yet I also remain of the view that now the question has been posed, it is nigh on impossible to oppose the notion of allowing same-sex couples to marry (albeit protecting religious freedom). I certainly could not justify it on any reasonable level.

It is such a shame it has come to this. Tory MPs are being bombarded by furious complaints from apparently loyal party activists and voters in their constituencies, who are saying they could never vote Conservative again. I’d just make a few observations on that.

First, for many such disaffected supporters this severance may have been a long time coming. The marriage matter is the straw that breaks the camel’s back; it is not necessarily a singularly defining issue.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that come election time this policy will be uppermost in voters’ minds. This works both ways, of course; quite why the party leadership presumes there’ll be some electoral benefit is beyond me. I sincerely hope that Mr Cameron et al are pressing ahead because it is the morally right thing to do, not to buy votes from a liberal, metropolitan cadre of younger citizens.

Thirdly, if people are threatening to leave the Conservative party over same-sex marriage, where are they going to go? The Labour party is whipping its MPs to vote in favour, Liberals will vote in favour, other fringe parties will vote in favour. A large proportion of Tory MPs - perhaps as many as half - will vote against (unlike the Opposition, Conservative MPs will have a free vote).

As with Europe, it could be argued that it is self-defeating to abandon the Tories (unless perhaps you vote in a constituency with a rare Eurosceptic Labour MP, such as Vauxhall or Birmingham Edgbaston). A Conservative Prime Minister wants to legalise civil same-sex marriage, but protect the right of churches and other religious groups to disagree. Who is to say what a future Labour government would decide to do?

I might be in favour of same-sex civil marriage, but it is plain to see that if you want to support a mainstream political party (i.e. a party that can actually get things done) that contains a significant element of people opposed to same-sex marriage, or protecting religious freedom, that party is the Conservative party.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Some of us still believe in this Coalition - sadly, its members no longer do

Nik Darlington 1.12pm

I was on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland show this morning (listen here, approx 1hr30 in), talking House of Lords reform and the coalition with the affable Mark Thompson, a Liberal Democrat blogger.

Politics has nudged itself into the newspapers today amid all the Olympics wonderment because the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made a speech yesterday declaring House of Lords reform dead in the water - with the vengeful quid pro quo that the Tories don’t get their prized constituency boundary review.

Where does this leave the coalition? Nowhere farther nor closer. Nor anything, really. As the Corby by-election in November shall presumably demonstrate, neither party is in a position to split up and go to the country. It will muddle on, though as Mark Thompson said on the radio this morning, government will become more transactional.

Any sensible person knows that Tory MPs have not broken the Coalition Agreement by opposing the House of Lords Reform Bill. Many items in that agreement contain promises to legislate - the bit about House of Lords reform does not.

"We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms in office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers."

A committee was formed, a Draft Bill was presented, and it advocated a number of things, including PR and 15-year terms, not to everyone’s tastes (including some senior Liberals). These reforms’ becoming law was only a presumption. It was not explicit.

So the Coalition Agreement has indeed been broken in spirit. But it takes some political naivety not to have seen it coming, nor to accept that these things happen in politics. Clauses couched in language such as “it is likely that…” are hardly copper-bottomed guarantees either.

This is, of course, disappointing. It all could have been done differently, more politely perhaps, such as Lib Dem quarrels behind the scenes about the NHS or planning reforms.

Yet coalition has become a colder environment. I still believe in it - in theory and practice. The two governing parties, however, seem now just to be going through the motions.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

What House of Lords reform tells us (encouragingly) about the House of Commons

Richard Ellis 8.27am

For centuries, the House of Commons had been intent on acquiring power. Blood was spilt and lives lost to secure greater authority for MPs. They became the foremost authority in the legislature and the chief seat of the executive.

Recent years have seen a near-total volte face. The House of Commons has been casting away its powers with an unbecoming incontinence. Whether to the European Union, to quangos or to the courts, MPs have hastened to jettison the rights for which their predecessors fought so long and so hard.

Who has the right to stay in this country? Who may vote? For how long can terrorist subjects be imprisoned? These are tricky subjects and they should be the subject of political discussion. The House of Commons should debate these points, have the necessary votes and pass the appropriate laws – and be subject to judgment at the ballot box.

MPs, sadly, have failed to take that line. Now the final decision on these and many other questions are taken miles away from any ballot box and often miles away from our own shores.

It is little short of pathetic that the Labour party should want a judge to hold an inquiry into the banking system. Banking reform is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Not only should the House of Commons be the prime mover, it should be chomping at the bit to be the prime mover. Labour MPs, however, want to sneak away from the fight and ask the wig-and-gown brigade to do the heavy lifting. Feeble.

The debate over the House of Lords, now delayed by yesterday’s decision to withdraw a timetabling motion that the Government knew it would lose, offers MPs the chance to stop this descent into impotent lethargy. Many of those who oppose this reform say that their main concern is the prospect of an elected House of Lords - with the greater legitimacy of a democratic mandate - challenging the supremacy of the House of Commons. It is a rare treat to hear that supremacy championed.

An elected House of Lords would indeed seek to challenge MPs.  It would, moreover, be right to do so; if you have a democratic mandate you are duty-bound to seek to have your way. Hence this Bill, which passed its Second Reading last night despite a Tory rebellion of 91, would lead to constitutional chaos. That is just one reason why it must be thrown out.

Nonetheless, these reforms may have a positive legacy. It can only augur well if the idea of an elected House of Lords has reminded MPs how important any elected chamber (the Commons included) should be.

If the House of Commons has finally woken up and recovered the will to defend and advance its role in our constitution then we may yet owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Clegg. The European Union, the judges, the media, the bankers all have great power over the British state. They have all got much wrong, none are properly accountable and all could provide much work for our newly-active democratic representatives. A reinvigorated Commons could be just what the doctor ordered.

With any luck these reforms could be a footnote in the history of the House of Lords and a turning point in the history of the House of Commons.

Fingers crossed.

These House of Lords reforms are bad for equality

Samuel Kasumu 2.28pm

The Government seems on the brink of its first serious parliamentary rebellion, and the Conservative MPs lining up to oppose the House of Lords Reform Bill represent a very broad church.

It isn’t merely the regular rebels (though the likes of Nadine Dorries are of course among their number). For a variety of reasons, many Tories have decided these reforms are a favour for their Liberal colleagues too far. And when Jesse Norman (South Hertfordshire) said that House of Lords reform would create less equality and less diversity, it really got me thinking.

At first, I took Mr Norman’s comments as just some rhetoric. But then it dawned on me that rather than create a more inclusive political system, this legislation will do more harm than good.

Take the current numbers of ethnic minorities in the House of Commons compared to the House of Lords. There are only 27 ethnic minorities in the House of Commons. A fully inclusive (i.e. proportional) Commons would have closer to 65 - more than double current figures. And the House of Lords? It comprises 42 peers from ethnic minorities.

Of course, one’s colour does not necessarily mean you are fit to represent a community better than another person, but MPs represent the pinnacle of the UK political system. Parliament is reflective of our political world, and if it cannot become inclusive, what hope do we have for the other circles of influence?

The very Liberal Democrats championing having another elected chamber do not even have one Black Member of Parliament. Surely it would make sense to deal with their current diversity problems before trying to take on the challenge of getting more people elected to the Other Place. We must also recognise that as Conservatives, who only managed to attract 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010, it is not in our interests to be accused of erecting more barriers for these groups entering politics.

There are also only 143 women in the current House of Commons, with 181 women in the House of Lords. While none of these figures are inspiring, the House of Lords does seem to be winning the battle when it comes to diversity and inclusion league tables.

Nothing in this Bill demonstrates that progress will be improved or maintained. If the House of Commons is reduced from 650 to 600 MPs as planned, we will have further problems when attempting to attract, more women, ethnic minorities, and those from working class backgrounds. The Lords helps to ensure that this diversity gap goes some way to being plugged but these reforms would take us two steps back. Be more inclusive in the Commons first, and then come back to us with your proposals.

Part 4 of the Reform Bill also proposes the eventual reduction of Lord Spirituals in the House of Lords to just seven members. My own view about the reduction of Lord Spirituals in the House is that it has no overall benefit to the political system. If the House of Lords is a place where the Government is held to account and where we are able to ensure that the most marginalised communities are considered within various policies, then the Church must be kept as a pivotal and influential part of the political system.

There of course will be times when there is a friction between the Church and the state, but such friction should not be looked at adversely. For indeed this allows proper thought and critique during key periods of decision making. We need only look to the events of the Queens Diamond Jubilee to see that the Church continues to play a key role in the nucleus of Great Britain, and any attempts to change this must be seen as an attack on faith.

Nick Clegg continues to attempt to paint a courageous picture of his Liberal Democrats’ attempting to finish off a job that began a century ago. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The current system may not be perfect but it has come a long way since the times of hereditary peers and an unbreakable ruling class. While I am a Tory Reformer who believes in change, and attracting quality candidates into the House of Lords, these proposals are not the solution.

I’d like to see more opportunities for Lords to be chosen by the public, but not through the simple mirroring of a tried, tested, and failed political system in the Commons. For it is this very House of Commons that continues to limit participation to those who can afford it, those who know about it, and those who are selected by a limited few.

Follow Samuel on Twitter @samuelkasumu

House of Lords reform is a risible Lib Dem distraction from getting proper things done

Craig Barrett 10.16am

I wrote last week about how Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have correctly gauged the public mood on bankers and are setting the running on the way in which banks should be investigated.

The Labour party’s amnesia about its past behaviour appears to be contagious, at least as far as the public at large is concerned. That party’s poll ratings continue to soar, yet just one senior figure seems to be trying to take the fight to them.

George Osborne should be commended for his valiant attempts to paint Ed Balls as the villain of this piece, even if it now seems doomed to failure. On Sunday morning, Andrew Marr allowed Mr Balls virtually free rein to give a party political broadcast; more worryingly, Marr’s tendency to savage in the manner of a dead sheep allowed Balls to become almost credible. Perhaps he has digested the results of those opinion polls about why the public dislike him. Not even Mr Balls is financially illiterate enough to fail to understand the logistical nightmare but his simple idea of keeping one’s account number when shifting banks is a neat little soundbite. Gone is the man of “neo-classical endogenous growth theory”, and all credit to him for that. It is vote-winning stuff. But again, George Osborne aside, nobody seems willing to take Labour on..

There exists a worrying complacency in the Government. This is most evident in the unedifying spectacle of House of Lords reform.  After their failure to convince the population at large of the benefits of PR, the Lib Dems seem hell-bent on saving something from the wreckage of their failed flagship policy. Worse, they are attempting to blackmail their Tory colleagues by putting at risk the proper equalisation of parliamentary constituencies.

We are being told to dispose of a system which, despite many obvious faults, has proven time and again to work both in terms of its expertise but also its ability to restrain over-enthusiastic governments. All manner of articles are written about the amazing diversity of background and experience in the Lords but it is surely worth pointing out once again that at a time when there is a general complaint about lack of life-experience in our politicians, surely it is folly to remove from the political system those whose unique position means that their experience is the widest? From the academics to the businessmen, from the disability campaigners to the charity workers, from the “luvvies” to the (yes, indeed) retired politicians and civil servants - the House of Lords is a diversity co-ordinator’s dream.

Yet MPs are being asked to replace them with a majority of seasoned party workers, paid less than their lower house counterparts but elected for longer terms. Never mind that parts of our country already have up to eight layers of elected officials, the Lib Dems seem determined to create more.

Sadly, it is very obvious to all concerned that they are acting less out of a genuine desire to make lasting, sensible change but rather out of a determined self-interest to get PR by the back door. Alan Clark described the Lib Dems as “over-promoted local councillors” – if they get their way on Lords reform, that is what our historic House of Lords shall become.

Back to the economy and banking, the further danger is that at a time of genuine concern about the state of our country, to spend time on a policy that the Prime Minister has categorised “third term” risks perpetuating this image that the Tory party is out of touch with people’s desires.  It is a gift to Labour. I urge all Conservative MPs to do all they can to block this Bill.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

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

Lords reform: time for a fresh approach to an old problem

Craig Prescott 10.17am

Some people think a referendum is necessary, others don’t. Both sides are correct but they miss the fundamental issue.

Nick Clegg has argued that reform should not be dependent on a referendum because all three main parties support reform, and further, they committed themselves to reform at the last general election.

David Cameron, while still open to the idea of a referendum, also believes there are many arguments against holding one.

Both positions are untenable as far as the draft Bill is concerned, or the recommendations proposed by the majority of the Joint Committee for the Bill.

As all three main parties were in favour if reform at the last election, voters were presented with Hobson’s choice and couldn’t express their views either way on the issue. Furthermore, the Labour party included a commitment to a referendum in their 2010 manifesto.

Significant constitutional change should be as inclusive as possible, whereby the agenda is not wholly dominated by a section of the political class. This is why in many written constitutions around the world you would not now be reading this article, as it would be legally required for such proposals to go before an electorate in a referendum (the Australian Constitution is such an example).

Furthermore, it would be odd if a referendum was required to change the method of composition for the Lower House (the AV referendum) but not for a more radical alteration of the Upper House.

On a more principled level, it seems strange to attempt to introduce democracy to the House of Lords in an undemocratic way by refusing to hold a referendum. In this respect, the view of a majority of the Joint Draft Bill Committee in strongly suggesting a referendum is to be commended.

However, those who argue against a referendum are also correct. It all depends on what one means by ‘reform’. At the risk of criticising the Bill committee in the way you might criticise a lemon for not being an orange, they have not considered other proposals for reforming the House of Lords.

Incremental reform, for instance, would not require a referendum. This is the line taken in the Alternative Report, published independently by a minority of the membership of the Bill committee. This report proposes to harness the momentum for reform to propose legislation that could readily be included in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. It should remove the remaining hereditary peers, permit peers to take permanent leaves of absence, introduce a minimal attendance requirement, and allow for the retirement of peers. Such legislation would be more politically acceptable to all members of all parties. It contains nothing controversial and could be a basis for more long-term reform.

Which according to the Alternative Report should be the responsibility of a Constitutional Convention. This is a common process elsewhere in the world, such as in Australia and certain federal states in the USA. The convention would consider the issue fully and in a broader manner than the current Bill committee has been able to do. Its membership would comprise constitutional experts, current Westminster politicians and representatives of devolved assemblies, local government, businesses and faith groups. It must operate apart from the political cycle. Ultimately, the convention’s proposals would be put to the electorate in a referendum, for the reasons offered above.

The fundamental issue missed by participants in the present debate about a referendum is that it is no longer sufficient for the ordinary political process to dominate the debate. It has dominated for a century, over two Royal Commissions, innumerable policy papers, inconclusive parliamentary debates and votes and, today, a draft Bill with a split committee and two diverging reports.

It is time for a fresh approach to an old problem.

Craig Prescott teaches Constitutional & Administrative Law at the University of Manchester.

Follow Craig on Twitter @craigprescott

Why Scotland needs Devo Plus, and why Conservatives and all unionists need to support it

Alex Fergusson MSP 6.00am

Immediately following the recent launch of Devo Plus, a group on which I am pleased to sit, the Tory Reform Group tweeted:

"Devo Plus is a campaign that unionists would be worthwhile supporting."

Needless to say, I entirely agree, but allow me to explain why.

I must begin by saying that I am every bit as much a unionist and a Conservative as all of my colleagues in the party. From Ruth Davidson to Murdo Fraser, Michael Forsyth to Malcolm Rifkind, we are all Conservatives and we are all unionists.

But what I believe we need to accept, fundamentally, is that the very notion of unionism is a variable rather than a fixed point on the constitutional spectrum. However, it is fair to say that Michael Forsyth’s view of unionism is rather different to mine, in that I firmly believe that we need to embrace that notion, rather than simply try to hide it.

My vision of unionism is a decentralising one in accordance, I think, with basic Conservative philosophy. I want to see each layer of government, from Westminster to Holyrood to local authorities, broadly raising the money they are responsible for spending.

That is the reasoning behind Devo Plus, and it is based quite simply on the principle of financial accountability - a principle that is sadly lacking in our current constitutional structure. It is practised in other strong unions throughout the world, including those of our transatlantic friends in Canada and the United States and, frankly, it is ‘beyond bonkers’ (to pinch a phrase from another former Presiding Officer!) to suggest that it cannot work here.

So for me the unionist box is firmly ticked. What about the Conservative one?

Firstly, localism is a key part of David Cameron’s overarching agenda, and Devo Plus is simply localism in action.

Secondly, it’s hardly a secret that the Scottish Tories have not exactly enjoyed increasing popularity since devolution, and a big part of that problem is our perceived unwillingness to give the Scottish people what opinion poll after opinion poll tells us they want: a more responsible, autonomous and accountable Scottish Parliament within a solid United Kingdom.

Our party - indeed, all parties - are now talking about this issue, and that is encouraging. In my view the end point is clear. The seeds of a Conservative comeback can be sown by embracing the principles of Devo Plus. We should make it clear to the Scottish people that a “no” vote in the referendum does not mean a continuation of the status quo, but that it means a journey towards Devo Plus.

Alex Fergusson is the Conservative MSP for Galloway & West Dumfries and was the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament from 2007 to 2011.