Why a referendum on Lords reform is a bad idea

On 23 April 2012, the Joint Select Committee reviewing the Government’s Draft House of Lords Reform Bill released its report.

Real life has not allowed me sufficient time to properly read through the entire report, available here, however I do want to take a few minutes to focus on one recommendation the Committee put forward, and that is the call for a referendum:

87. The Committee recommends that, in view of the significance of the constitutional change brought forward for an elected House of Lords, the Government should submit the decision to a referendum.

Part of me sort of understands why some believe significant constitutional change should be subject to a referendum for the people’s approval, but a larger part of me strongly believes that constitutional change is not at all something that should be put to a popular vote because the issues are simply too complex for most voters to make a well informed choice.

That undoubtedly sounds horribly elitist, and I agree. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true, however.

There is much opposition to Lords reform in the UK, not simply to the proposals put forward by the Government in its draft bill, but to the very fact that the Government is even proceeding with such an initiative. Many – mostly Conservatives – fear that the Government will waste too much time and effort trying to get Lords reform through parliament, while there are far more important matters – namely the economy – that should be their main focus. Another reason put forward as an objection is that “people don’t care” about Lords reform, the implication being that since it isn’t a priority issue for the vast majority of people, the Government shouldn’t bother with it:

But the issue of Lords reform remains a faultline in the coalition. Lib Dem ministers are determined to press ahead with legislation to make the upper house largely elected, while Tory MPs and peers from all wings of the party spent the weekend identifying it as a key example of a policy showing the government out of touch with the concerns of voters.

Among the Tories joining that protest on Sunday were Lord Fowler, who said it was “bad politics” and not worth any votes, Tim Yeo, who said Lords reform should be “relegated right to the bottom of the queue” and Julian Brazier, who said it was a “ridiculous fringe” policy.

There is some truth to the above. Lords reform – and most political and constitutional reform – is somewhat of a “fringe” policy. Even among many who are keenly interested in politics, issues such as Lords reform (or Senate reform here in Canada) don’t interest them. Among the population at large, these issues simply don’t register. No party will win or lose an election because of its position on Lords or Senate reform – these simply aren’t issues that resonate with the majority of voters.

This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important issues, or that governments shouldn’t proceed with constitutional reforms. A lot of the business of government deals with pieces of legislation of which the general public probably remains blissfully unaware. Do you really think the majority of people are aware of or have an opinion on the Civil Aviation Bill? Does this mean the Government shouldn’t proceed with it? Of course not.

The Government acknowledges that people don’t care about Lords reform, and this is one of the main reasons why they reject calls for a referendum. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in a television interview:

“Why is it that we should spend a great deal of money, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, asking the British people a question which frankly most people don’t worry about very much?

“I think to subcontract to the British people an issue which the politicians at Westminster just can’t deal with, I think is asking a lot of the British people.”

Ironically, calls for a referendum on Lords reform is strongest among those who oppose said reform – because they see it as the surest way to defeat any attempt at reform.

Whether or not Lords reform enjoys popular support isn’t really the issue, however. As I stated at the outset, it’s simply too complex an issue to put to a Yes or No vote, and this is true of probably all constitutional reform.

If you bothered to follow the hearings of the Joint Select Committee reviewing the draft bill, which I did, one thing that you would have noted is that there was often very little agreement between supposed constitutional and political experts as to what the proposed reforms would mean or how they might impact the functioning of Parliament. If people who are experts in this area can’t agree on these matters, it’s asking rather a lot of the general population to decide the matter.

The Lords reform bill, assuming one actually does get through Parliament, which isn’t guaranteed, will be an extremely complex bill. If put to a referendum, the question will be on accepting the reform package in its entirety – there won’t be individual votes on the various component parts of the bill. What if someone is very much in favour of Lords Reform, but is adamantly opposed to one or two provisions of the bill? Do they vote to reject the entire package, or do they grit their teeth and vote in favour anyway? And if someone is completely oblivious to the issue as it makes its way through Parliament, how are they supposed to vote? Will they even bother? The 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote demonstrated how easily the No side was able to mount a campaign based largely on half-truths and outright falsehoods, and AV is extremely simple to understand compared to the complex issues raised by House of Lords reform. I really can’t think of any issue less suitable to put to a referendum.

Another problem is that governments tend to treat referendum results as an absolute – it settles the entire issue, not just the matter being voted on. For example, it was quite clear that a “No” vote in the AV referendum was going to be interpreted as a rejection not only of the Alternative Vote, but also of electoral reform in general. Many people voted against AV because they wanted a more proportional voting system – their “No” vote was truly a no to AV, not a no to all electoral reform. Yet the government clearly indicated that the result meant an end to discussions of electoral reform for the foreseeable future. Similarly, it is very likely that a “No” outcome in a referendum on Lords reform would be interpreted not as a defeat of the specific measures put forward in the bill being voted on, but as a “No” to the very idea of reforming the House of Lords.

I am not a huge fan of referendums in general. I don’t think there are many questions which lend themselves well to a general yes/no vote. Constitutional reform is very complex, usually raising many issues which require specialist knowledge to fully understand. I would perhaps see some value in seeking input via referendum on the principle of reform, e.g. before bringing a bill forward, to see if there is general support for the idea of proceeding with said reform, but not in putting the reform package to a popular vote. Ours is a representative democracy, meaning we elect our MPs to make these decisions on our behalf. On an issue such as Lords reform, they will be far better placed to judge the value of whatever reforms are brought forward than would the general public.

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