On Wednesday a parliamentary bill to introduce a mainly elected House of Lords will be published. Inside the so-called ‘Westminster bubble’, MPs are jostling for position while trying to work out who will support the Government’s plans and who will vote against the proposed legislation. The bill has strong support from the Lib Dems, with Nick Clegg, their leader and the current Deputy Prime Minister, as chief cheerleader. Within the Conservative party, the majority party of the ruling coalition, opinion is less universal. With the threat of up to a hundred Conservative MPs rebelling against the Government’s plans, the support of Labour MPs will be vital. However, the Labour Party finds itself in a similar position to that of David Cameron’s’ Conservatives, with Ed Miliband having to deal with a growing number of his MPs seriously considering ignoring the Whip and voting the opposite to their leader.
On the face of it, this issue is of huge importance to the country on a constitutional level. The bill that will be proposed by the Government over the next few days seeks to alter the make up of the House of Lords to a greater extent than any other Lords Reform Act in history. While the reform acts of the early 20th century were a big deal and had huge political ramifications, as did the New Labour imposed bill 0f 1999, none before have sought to introduce elected peers into the Second Chamber. Previous acts have been more concerned with curtailing the power of the House of Lords or reducing the number of hereditary peers that sit in what MPs call, ‘the other place’. This new bill will introduce a second elected chamber for the first time in Parliament’s history and will throw up numerous questions about its power and place in the constitution. The flexibility of the UK constitution, since it is largely unwritten, allows for such radical changes to the process of legislation in this country and the bill might be put onto the statute books in May of next year.
This being such an important constitutional decision then, you would have thought that more attention would be placed on it outside of the ‘Westminster bubble’. While MPs debate the issue in the hallways of the Palace of Westminster and hacks who follow political goings-on have constantly reported on the subject, there has been a distinct absence of wider public interest in the proposed bill. The reasons for this should be elaborated on and might provide answers to what have been ‘distracting’ the British public over the past few months and what is higher on the national priority list.
There is certainly a sense that the public has been disengaging with politics in this country more and more in recent years. The 2010 General Election saw a huge rise in public interest in the topic and hopes for the future rose in the early summer heat during the election campaign. However, since the formation of the coalition under the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the public has been less interested in politics and less willing to follow political news. This trend is impacted by the fall in trust levels for politicians in general that hit a huge low with the expenses scandal in the last few months of the New Labour government. Perceptions of Westminster politicians as posh and rich have continued and do not look set to change any time soon. Why would people care about the decisions made by people they distrust? There is a danger that if this continues that the public might forget that MPs hold the keys to power in this country and make decisions that impact on people’s lives every day.
Putting aside political distrust in London, another reason for an apparent public indifference concerning Lords reform could lie in the economic situation of the day. I am no economist but the situation is not particularly rosy at the time of writing, especially since the UK has slipped back into recession recently. It could well be argued that the public at large are more concerned with this problem than any other and would rather MPs and the government deal with this issue than reform of the Lords that could wait a bit longer. The British public has historically been quite content with the Second Chamber being an unelected one and it has never really been seen as an issue of huge national importance. Even in the 21st century with democracy all the rage in most countries (in theory at least), the British public still don’t seem to mind that a huge part of law making in the country is in the control of people who are not accountable to them. Therefore, why would people want to be interested in something that they clearly are not particularly bothered about anyway? Of course, 2012 is not just the year that Lords Reform returns since 1999, but it is also the year of the London 2012 Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. These events are bound to command higher public interest than dusty politics at Westminster. After all, the whole reason as to why we elect MPs in the first place is to deal with issues on our behalf so we don’t have to. We are then free to spend our time doing other things and of course a home Olympics will be high on the national consciousness. With David Cameron’s decision not to hold a referendum on the subject, why should the public engage more in an issue that they have no further direct say in anyway?
Lords reform has to be one of the biggest constitutional issues of the past few decades. Such an issue would normally expect a larger interest from the public at large. But since there are numerous other, more interesting events and big economic problems, going on in Britain during 2012, it is perhaps not surprising that the public has other things on its mind.
Final thought – 23 million people tuned in to watch England fall at the quarter-final stage at Euro 2012 against Italy. How many of those people know that Lords Reform might soon make it all the way to the statute books?