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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Labour 'heavies' run riot in the House of Lords

Labour 'heavies' run riot in the House of Lords

Labour peers are threatening to wreck David Cameron's flagship bill on voting reform, with another series of all night sittings in the Lords this week.

By Melissa Kite, Deputy political editor 9:00PM GMT 22 Jan 2011

The House of Lords - A gentlemanly place where politics is done discreetly over whisky and cigars.

The Speaker never even needs to shout "order" because, well, their Lordships don't overstep the mark. They would never do anything so crass as to shout or talk over each other.

Imagine the horror of this civilised breed, therefore, when last week the Upper House was transformed into a bear pit of flying insults and political dirty tricks as a cadre of battle-hardened former Labour MPs, newly ennobled, set about disrupting legislation on voting reform.

As the Lords brace themselves for a rerun this week, the Labour peers responsible have been denounced as "thugs" by older peers who claim they are ending hundreds of years of convention in the Upper House by behaving with all the etiquette of a herd of stampeding rhinoceroses.

Convention states that their Lordships do not hold up government legislation unduly, but scrutinise it as effectively and swiftly as possible. If they have objections, they are expected to meet with ministers to iron out compromises – a move known as "going through the usual channels".

But former Labour MPs used to the cut and thrust of the bruising politics of the Blair and Brown years are holding to no such conventions and indeed appear to be thoroughly enjoying making trouble for David Cameron as they attempt to talk the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill out of time.

The Labour filibuster was so effective last week that they succeeded in disrupting the legislation during three all night sittings and the Bill must return for three more all night sessions starting tomorrow.

They have the Government held to ransom, and David Cameron now faces losing the Bill unless he does a deal with Labour peers, who were last night refusing to play ball despite the entreaties of their own party leadership.

Such tactics have fuelled potentially disastrous bad feeling. Veteran peers are particularly angry at the behaviour of a group of former Labour MPs they are calling "the Scottish mafia".

Led by the formidable Tommy McAvoy, a notoriously combative former Labour chief whip in the Commons, now Lord McAvoy, they include Lord Martin, the former Commons Speaker, Lord Foulkes and Baroness Liddell, both former ministers.

Lord Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, is also proving an unstoppable force.

As older peers slumbered in the early hours during last week's debates, Lord Prescott was on his feet helping Labour to talk the Bill out of time by making a long speech about his time as a democracy monitor in Armenia.

What this had to do with voting reform in Britain was obviously extremely tenuous. It just wasn't cricket, said more experienced peers.

Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, also joined in the filibuster and at one point shouted out a very uncouth "Rubbish!".

Lord Boeteng, a former minister, held the Bill up by reading aloud an entire article on an unrelated subject from the Evening Standard, a move that was seen as shockingly brazen. Lord Foulkes recited a long list of villages in his former constituency.

It all added up to one thing, according to veteran peers: These chaps simply do not know how to behave. They are "bringing House of Commons habits to The Other Place".

As Lord McAvoy talked he was denounced by the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard as "an expert in intimidation". Indeed, many of the older Tory and Lib Dem peers simply could not keep pace with the drive and stamina of the Labour gang.

At one stage, in the early hours of the morning, an astonishing 46 Labour peers who had been in the chamber all day and all night sat wide-awake on the Opposition benches. On the other side a few stray Tories and Lib Dems slumbered.

"We were just no match for them," said one. "They are really, really good at this. They are shameless. There is no way we are going to crack them. We just can't close them down."

Lord McAvoy is unrepentant: "I do not care which Government they are," he has declared sarcastically, "if there are complaints about alleged filibustering, take it up with the usual channels and get a response."

The Conservatives are aghast at such behaviour. Insiders say Mr Cameron is so angry he is determined to face them down.

But senior Tories are urging him to do a deal or lose the Bill, which paves the way for a referendum on voting reform, a key promise he made to Nick Clegg when he entered into coalition.

Clearly things are going to the wire. Peers are taking up to three hours on each amendment put down and there are 50 amendments left to debate, with only three days this week to do it.

Electoral rules state that the Bill must go through by mid-February if a referendum is to be held as planned on May 5.

As one government peer put it: "We are completely buggered if we don't do a deal. There is no way we can get this through unless we offer concessions."

The proposed deal being worked on is thought to centre around controversial boundary changes in the Bill.

The Coalition may be prepared to modify the changes to allow slightly bigger constituencies, which would be marginally more favourable to Labour.

But the Labour rebels are still hardballing, and have audaciously told their party leader Ed Miliband that they will not play ball with any deal he does with Cameron.

Even if they do eventually come on side, the bad feeling left behind by such tactics will remain.

Peers feel they have "done violence" to Upper House traditions which have served it well for centuries.

Sir George Young, the Commons leader, hinted at the frustration when he said: "When I came into this House (the Commons) some time ago, all the rough trade was done here, and down the other end there were non-partisan, short focused debates in a revising chamber.

"The rough trade now seems to have gone down the other end. The other place runs the risks of losing the moral high tone if its Members continue to proceed as they are."

Some peers are so upset that they are changing their views on Lords reform. Traditionalist Tories even are coming around to proposals being championed by Nick Clegg for a majority elected chamber in the wake of the filibuster.

As one senior Conservative peer said: "If Labour are just going to pack the House with thugs like this, we would be better off with elections."

Comment: It was only 3 weeks ago that the Establishment was condemning prisoners for running riot at Ford open prison...

The one voting reform which those in the House of Lords could debate is prisoners human rights to the franchise.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

Imagine the horror of this civilised breed, therefore, when last week the Upper House was transformed into a bear pit of flying insults and political dirty tricks as a cadre of battle-hardened former Labour MPs, newly ennobled, set about disrupting legislation on voting reform.

Well summed up.