Real Labour – progressives are relatively thin on the ground

Interesting news via Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice:

Labour MPs yesterday split three ways in a Commons vote on one of the government’s key environmental proposals

The committee vote came in the House of Commons on the statutory instrument (SI) for the fourth carbon budget, on whether or not to accept to accept the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations that total emissions in 2023-27 should be set at 1950 MtCO2 (a 50% reduction from 1990 levels).

Labour MPs Dennis Skinner and Geoffrey Robinson voted against, Nic Dakin and Ian Mearns abstained and the other Labour MPs voted in favour, as did all the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Aside from the oddity of the three-way split, the vote also shows once again how even on topics where Labour official policy is in line with the Liberal Democrats, it is Conservative parliamentarians (even if only reluctantly following coalition agreements) who are regularly a more reliable source of support than Labour ones. As on electoral reform, the progressives in Labour are frequently very thin on the ground.

PMQs: Since when is the NHS a "micro" issue?

Cross posted from Liberal Democrat Voice:

A bit of a surprise at Prime MInister’s Questions. I expected Ed Miliband to ask about public sector pensions and the strike tomorrow. It was a bit odd when he asked about the NHS. Cameron later said that Miliband couldn’t fire off questions on the strikes subject “because he is in the pocket of the unions.” He also rather cheaply accused Miliband of fighting shy of Greece “because his plan is to make Britain like Greece.”

Then, Cameron reach his climax with a line which must have been honed over much midnight oil in Downing Street:

He has to talk about the micro because he can’t talk about the macro.

Slam. Dunk. Not.

Somehow I don’t think that’ll be appearing in the same collected quotes’ volume as “I have a dream” or “We shall fight them on the beaches” or even “I will announce the results in reverse order”. (Or indeed “Now wash your hands”). Perhaps someone should have added a note to this pre-prepared quote: “Don’t say this if Miliband asks about a big issue”

However, Miliband’s questioning on the NHS was reasonably sharp. We learnt all sorts of facts and figures. There are 163 organisations in the NHS now. After the government reforms there will be 521. Miliband said this was the opposite of Cameron’s “bonfire of the quangoes”. It hardly seems like an attack on bureaucracy.

Miliband’s other point was that the government is spending £852 million on NHS redudancies but many of the people being made redundant will be re-hired by the many new quangoes. Cameron could not deny this.

When you look at it like that, the reorganisation is a bit of a mess.

Other snippets were:

Trivia quiz answer alert: Sir Peter Tapsell is Father of the House.
MPs will have to pay 5% increased pension contributions – the top figure for public sector workers.
Dr Julian Huppert (LibDem) asked:

Does the Prime Minister believe that drugs policy has been failing for decades as he said in 2005 and does he agree that the Government should initiate a discussion of alternative ways, including the possibility of legalisation and regulation, to tackle the global drugs dilemma, as he voted for in 2002?

Cameron replied that he does not agree with the legalisation of drugs, focussed on the role of education and treatment.

The legendary Melanie

I have belatedly realised that my heroine, Melanie, was at Glastonbury. Here’s a rather shaky clip which shows her on the Spirit of ’71 stage with her son Beau-Jarred on guitar beside her.

She’s a legend. Of course, the song that she is singing here, “What have they done to my song, Ma” turned out to be profoundly prophetic when, a few years later, The Wurzels murdered her beautiful “Brand New Key” and sold the dead body as a recording known as “The Combine Harvester”.

The strike: trying to hold back the inevitable

Of late, I have found much to disapprove in the government’s performance. Michael Gove would be one quick example. The man drives me nuts.

But on public sector pensions I believe the government has got it right. It has been clear for years that a government would have to, sooner or later, bite the bullet on pensions. Private companies have been scaling back pension costs for years. It’s a fact of life.

Channel 4 News Factcheck have looked into this claim by Cameron yesterday:

I can look you in the eye and say public service pensions will remain among the very best… much better, indeed, than for many private sector workers.

Their analyst, Patrick Worral and writer Cathy Newman, find that Cameron is right on this – firmly in the “fact” area of their checking indicator. They conclude:

Private sector employees are now so much worse off in their retirement – and on average their salaries are no longer any higher.

You can read the copious details behind Channel 4 News’ conclusions here.

So the strike tomorrow is ludicrous. OK, I support the right to strike. But these folks are on a hiding to nothing. They won’t get much support from the rest of us. Why should they? When the proposals take effect, their pensions will still be better than the private sector, and their pay levels are higher.

Baron Teverson on House of Lords reform

Here is a comment from Robin Teverson, member of the House of Lords, in response to my post here on the recent Commons debate on the subject. I am reproducing it here to give it a tad more prominence that it would get beneath my original post.

Though most of this is true the area I do disagree with is that it is so obvious that the reformed Lords would not challenge the Commons for supremacy. I suspect it would, just like in the EU the Parliament more and more challenges the Council of Ministers (which has historically been the more powerful ‘house’ of EU legislation). But why do we need to worry about this? The new reformed Lords will be more representative and the people that get elected to it will see themselves as having at least equal legitimacy as the Commons – so lets have a bit of competition. Without a written constitution with division of powers, and an unrepresentative first past the post system in the Commons, this challenge in reality is inevitable – so lets celebrate it. If anything forces the Commons to go for PR it will be challenge of a more legitimate second chamber.

But all this misses the real point. The House of Lords at the moment, as a primarily revising chamber, simply allows the Commons to get away with doing a lousy job at legislation and calling the Government of the day to account. If there was no second chamber the Commons would have to do the job its supposed to do in the first place itself. In the business world there is a phrase – get it ‘right first time’, and we should apply that lesson in Parliament too. So instead of messing around the real answer is to have one chamber only and abolish the second. But of course to do that and avoid electoral dictatorship we would have to have a proportional system of election for what is now the Commons- but of course that option has now been lost for at least a decade, probably more unless competition from a reformed Lords really does lead to that challenge of legitimacy.

Robin Teverson
Member of the House of Lords

Lords reform: Three reasons for optimism from the Commons debate last night

The girls were out last night, so I could watch BBC Parliament without stinting. It just happened be the Lords Reform debate on. A golden back of the net moment.

Ok, there was the normal procession of dinosuars from both sides of the chamber: Laing, Jenkin, Pound, Bell etc. And the normal element of Clegg-bashing.

But amongst all that, there were three reasons for optimism for Lords reformists:

1. Chris Bryant, Labour’s spokesman on these matters, is full square behind reform. His bookend, Sadiq Khan, is rather anti. But Bryant, to give him his due, is full on in support:

I hope that everyone unites to improve the proposals, because they certainly need improvement. If the Government are too intractable, the measures will die. However, let us not lose sight of the unsustainability of the present arrangements. Surely, if one wants to tell other people how to live their lives, which is in essence what a Member of a legislature does, the least one can do is to put oneself up for election. (my bolding)

His speech was music to my ears. As was David Miliband’s. So it’s a tick in the box for Labour support, notwithstanding the Bells and Pounds.

2. The main thrust of opposition to the proposals was around the Commons losing supremacy to a strengthened Lords. This argument was repeated endlessly. But it was rebutted very soundly by a Tory. Yes. A Tory. Step forward Laura Sandys. A breath of fresh air:

Obviously Parliament is not just this House, but it appears that this House, the legitimate House, is the House that lacks confidence in itself. The big fear is that giving more legitimacy to the House of Lords will diminish powers here, but the reforms that we are discussing, which will mean greater legitimacy for the other place, give us an opportunity collectively to hold the Government to greater account: to examine, cajole, petition and more effectively, not less effectively, ensure that there is greater scrutiny of Government. We need to claim back more powers collectively, and with a legitimate other place we can add to Parliament’s powers without any erosion of the powers in this Chamber.

3. One of the things I have most feared about this reform initiative, is that it has, so far, got terribly mixed up with Clegg-bashing. Fortunately, last night, that changed. David Miliband emphasised, albeit patronisingly, that Labour should not concentrate on “small fry” (Clegg). But more significantly, Mark Harper, the Tory at the Cabinet Office, did an excellent job at winding up the debate. There was no sneering, booing or hissing while he talked. And he is a Tory. He re-iterated the government’s commitment to introducing the reforms in time for the first elections in 2015. It was very reassuring to hear an unhissed Tory saying this.

That superb Lords Reform speech by David Miliband – in full

From Hansard:

David Miliband (South Shields) (Lab): I apologise to the House for having to absent myself for a short period this evening.

It is nice to be able to speak in the House in full and enthusiastic support of the manifesto on which I was elected, and consistent with my previous votes in the House for 100% election and 80% election to the Lords, in 2003 and 2007. I look forward to getting the chance to vote on the matter again.

I wish first to dispose of three very bad arguments against proceeding towards an elected House. The first is that we need to sort out the functions of the House of Lords before doing so. The truth is that there is agreement on that point. The House of Lords is a revising Chamber not equal to the House of Commons, prevented by statute from pre-empting the supremacy of this House and established by law and by practice to persuade and restrain this House.

The second argument is that the public have got other things on their mind. The idea that the Government have a bad economic policy or health policy because they are distracted by House of Lords reform is frankly risible. We are elected to this place to debate the big issues of the time, and I do not believe that it is sufficient to say that this is not people’s main preoccupation.

The third bad argument is by far the most tempting. It is: because the Deputy Prime Minister is in favour an elected House, is sponsoring the debate and will sponsor the Bill, it must be a bad idea. That view has many supporters in both main parties, as we will discover, and one can see the force of the point. When the right hon. Gentleman said before the election that he wanted to unite the nation, he could scarcely have imagined that people of all shades of opinion would come together so quickly to agree that he is not a very lovable rogue. However, although that is a tempting argument, I hope that my colleagues, especially Labour colleagues, will not fall for it. The right hon. Gentleman needs no help from either of the two so-called main parties to administer his fate, and there is a much bigger game here than the temptation to kick a man when he is down. The roadblock to reform is not, in this case, the right hon. Gentleman, but the Government’s puppetmaster, the Prime Minister. We should not be diverted by the temptation of kicking smaller fry.

The fundamental issue at stake is whether a stronger, more assertive, more legitimate House of Lords will be good for the governance of the country, not just in democratic theory, but in real life and practice. I believe that it would. I am a believer in strong government. I also believe that a strong Government get stronger and better when they are more accountable to a strong legislature. That is what we are debating today. That is a recipe not for gridlock but for better government.

Legislative strength is, in part, the way in which this House functions. Personally, I would have liked to see electoral reform of this House and the second Chamber on the same ballot paper in a single referendum, because we should debate the Parliament of the United Kingdom as a whole. The House of Commons and the House of Lords exist in relation to each other, not simply separately. However, following the alternative vote fiasco, that opportunity has been missed. None the less, it is striking that many of those who argue that reform will make no difference to the public also contend that it will mean the end of the House of Commons as the voice of the public. They cannot have it both ways.

Reform of the House of Lords is important to the strength and effectiveness of the legislature as a whole. That is why I argue for it.

Jesse Norman: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reciting such a compendium of errors. If he is giving us a lecture on logic, how does he explain the contradiction of a Prime Minister, who is allegedly, in the right hon. Gentleman’s view, a puppetmaster, yet also an enthusiastic advocate of the proposed legislation?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman tempts me and I will deal with that exact point shortly.

To those who say that an elected House of Lords will be stronger, I reply, “Good.” It will be good for the House of Commons and good for Governments of any stripe to face more effective and assertive scrutiny, and, where necessary, revision of their legislation from the House of Lords. That is not the same as advocating the overthrow of the primacy of the House of Commons, or as saying that the House of Lords will be a rival to the House of Commons. This country’s democratic problem is not neutered Government, emanating from the House of Commons, but under-scrutinised, under-accountable, over-centralised and over-confident Government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): In the first minute of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman said that the House of Lords would not be more powerful; in the fifth minute, he said it would be. I think that it would not be a bad thing if the House of Lords were more powerful, but we ought at least to recognise what we are doing.

David Miliband: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I have my speech in front of me, and I did not say that the House of Lords would not be more powerful. I made the logical point that the House of Lords could have a stronger voice in the nation’s affairs; that it would not become a rival to the House of Commons, but that it could provide more effective scrutiny of legislation proposed by a Government elected to this House.

The problem in the current system of an over-centralised and under-accountable Government would be significantly reduced by an elected House of Lords. The simplest and most principled case is for a wholly elected House. It has my support. However, I do not accept the argument that the reservation of 20% of seats for independent voices, independently selected, torpedoes the purpose of reform. It is less pure than a wholly elected House, but it may be more practical. The argument that it creates a hybrid House is not strong, given the current composition of the House of Lords, in which the hereditary peers and the non-party peers are in a class of their own.

Let me conclude with some history, which addresses the point that the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) made. I had the pleasure of writing with Lord Irvine of Lairg the 1997 Labour manifesto that committed the new Government to removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords. The wording was designed to pre-empt any queries from the other place on Salisbury convention grounds. However, we did not bank on the willingness of Viscount Cranbourne and his backwoodsmen to threaten the whole of the Government’s programme if we proceeded with the abolition of all hereditary peers. That was the origin of the then Government’s acceptance of the so-called Weatherill amendment, which reprieved 92 hereditary peers.

In speaking to the historic motion to remove some 650 hereditary peers from the Lords, Lord Irvine said that the compromise in respect of the 92

“would guarantee that stage two would take place”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 204.]

One reason for its not taking place is that, until now, the Conservative party has been officially opposed to an elected House of Lords. However, the Conservative Opposition in the House of Lords in 1999, in reply to Lord Irvine, said that it was absolutely crucial that one amendment to the Bill should be a timetable setting out exactly when stage two would be put in place.

Twelve years on, we are still waiting, to the shame of all parties in this House. Many of us fear that the Deputy Prime Minister’s Joint Committee will be another recipe for foot dragging. However, for the first time in centuries, the Conservative party has been dragged to support an elected House of Lords. Let us get on with bringing it about.

6.6 pm

LibDem grassroots threaten revolt on education reforms

From PoliticsHome:

Liberal Democrat grassroots members are mounting a rebellion against the Coalition’s policies on academies and free schools, PoliticsHome has learned.

Members of the Social Liberal Forum, a left-leaning group within the party, are developing a set of proposals to contest Education Secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policies, which they believe are “damaging” and are being “raced through” Parliament. They hope to capitalise on the party’s recent success in changing Government health policy by speaking out on education as well.

SLF members have been asked to support a motion going to the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Birmingham, which calls the governance arrangements for all schools to be opened up to the community.

Michael Gove in hypocrisy shocker

From Dot Commons on Politics Home:

This morning Michael Gove railed against pupils being able to re-sit GCSE exams if they failed to make the grade the first time. He told Andrew Marr: “The problem that we had was instead of sitting every part of a GCSE at the end of the course, bits of it were taken along the way, and those bits could be re-sat. That meant instead of concentrating on teaching and learning you had people who were being trained again and again to clear the hurdle of the examination along the way.”
But Mr Gove’s opponents were quick to point out that he has benefited from being able to re-sit exams himself. In a column for The Times a few years ago , Mr Gove admitted that he is “someone who passed their driving test at the seventh attempt”. Dot Commons notes that clearing the hurdle of this examination didn’t hold Mr Gove in good stead for long. His column also admits that he crashed his car “into a motorway bridge just a few months later” and “took 16 months before finding out which button to press to get the cleaning fluid out for the windscreen wipers”.