We have just seen another week in which the Liberal Democrats in the Lords led the way in challenging the Conservative Government. The high profile issue was votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the European Referendum when no fewer than 91 of our members voted for the amendment, out of a total of 107 – five are still waiting to come in – with none against, an astonishing record turnout of 87%. Labour managed 74% and the Tories 71. (And it didn’t even include me, I was stuck at home in Lancashire feeling poorly and miserable).
And then Sue Miller (my good friend Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer) moved an amendment to give the vote to all UK citizens living in the EU – and why not, it’s their future as much as or even more than ours? But Labour more or less abstained (four in favour, 37 against – these no doubt being mainly the anti-EU little Englanders in their ranks) and the amendment went down by 214 to 116. There were 84 LD votes in favour and again none against. Yet another principled Liberal charge while Labour sat on the sidelines!
The Government have been defeated in the Lords 21 times since the General Election. They don’t like it but why should they have their own way all the time on the basis of an election in which almost two out of three voted against them? There is a coterie of ranting Tory backbenchers who complain that we are “over-represented” in the Lords (by about the same proportion as we are under-represented in the Commons as it happens) and demand we are “cut back”. But the interim settlement in the Lords in 1999 when over 500 hereditaries were waved on their way was based on an important statistical principle – that the Government of the day would never again have a majority in the Upper House.
That principle was sorely tested during the Coalition, though it held true thanks to the Crossbenches and it’s the case now. And so on a range of important Bills such as Cities and Devolution, Child Care, and Energy the Lords scrutinised and improved the legislation. Then the Government lost the vote on the Statutory Instrument on Tax Credits (since when the constitution has mysteriously not crumbled as they forecast), and on the voting age for the referendum peers have asked the Commons to think again. And on all these, the Liberal Democrat group has either been in the driving seat or we’ve been the pivotal body of votes in the House. And so it will go on.
It’s good for the Lords, it’s good for the Government, it’s good for the country – and it’s good for the Liberal Democrats. Yes, it’s a situation full of ironies, but it’s the real world in which we will be living for some time. And if not the Lords, and if not the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, who? The party as a whole should be proud of what our campaigning band of peers are doing and should be cheering us on, providing the support and the campaigning backup in the country that will make our work that much more effective, and welcoming our presence in counsels of our party.