Lords reform: let’s have veto powers, not a vanity referendum
Author: James Graham
Published on Apr 05, 2012
It looks as if the Joint Committee looking at the House of Lords reform bill will recommend that elections to the second chamber should be made subject to a referendum.
Referendums have a fairly checkered history within British politics. While referendums themselves are democratic, in general it is the political class who get to choose what question is put on the ballot paper. Rather than as a tool for putting people in charge of decision making, all too often they are used by the political class to get them off the hook.
Lacking anything like a codified constitution, we’ve never come to a settled view about when they are or are not appropriate. Instead, they tend to get trawled out as a way to stop things from happening or act as cover for when parties are hopelessly split on an issue. If the government of the day is determined to ensure a reform takes place, you can bet they won’t be talking about holding a referendum. The government did not hold a referendum before deciding to fundamentally reform the health service, for example. Nor has it insisted on using them to introduce directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners.
What is the principle behind holding a referendum on reforming the House of Lords, something promised in the three major parties’ manifestos and consistently enjoys support in opinion poll after opinion poll? It appears to be little more than a tactic by opponents of reform who are banking on being able to turn the referendum into another stick to beat up the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems were naive to settle for the AV referendum, ignoring calmer voices suggesting they would be better off insisting on a citizens’ assembly to decide the voting system first. Supporters of reform would be extraordinarily foolish to go along with holding an expensive referendum there is no evidence the public want either.
What is all too often missed is that it is not referendums per se that are democratic, but the right for the public to debate and decide on a policy which would otherwise be foisted on them. The only principled reason to hold a referendum is that you can demonstrate that a sizeable proportion of the public actually want one. It is this principle, not grubby partisan advantage, which ought to inform parliament’s decision as to whether to hold a referendum on an elected second chamber.
In its evidence to the Joint Committee (pdf), Unlock Democracy proposed a solution which would both satisfy this and the Labour manifesto commitment to hold a referendum: include in the House of Lords Reform Bill a clause which will trigger a referendum if at least 5% of the public petition for one. This is what is most commonly known as a “citizen’s veto”. Not only would we then only go to the expense of holding a referendum if there was sufficient demand, but the referendum itself is far more likely to focus on the issue itself instead of becoming a proxy for something else.
It is certainly strange to hear some of the same politicians who are so quick to argue that the cost of introducing a cleaner system of party funding is unaffordable while insisting on referendums which would cost roughly the same amount at the drop of a hat. Until they move beyond vanity projects of the political elite and become tools owned by the people themselves, the status of referendums as respectable tools for decision making will continue to look tarnished.
Image: the Chewbacca defence, a tactic commonly employed in referendum campaigns. Copyright Comedy Central.