Why Lords reform is a gift for Labour

Ed Miliband now has an effective veto on Lords reform. Without Labour support, Nick Clegg's plans to replace the existing House of Lords with an (as yet un-named) mostly-elected chamber will not make it through the Commons, let alone the Lords.

This morning I dashed from the launch of the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Bill, to the short press conference held by the pro-reformers, at the other end of the Palace of Westminster and then back again, to the rather longer event held by the antis.

And what was clear from the three events is that there is no danger whatsoever of consensus breaking out.

The pro-reformers regard the case for moving to a mostly elected house, leavened by a few appointed experts, as a slam-dunk issue of principle. The antis regard the coalition's proposals as shallow and unworkable - and they don't bother to conceal their contempt. And the antis include a very large number of backbench Conservative MPs, who will take some dragooning into the "Aye" lobby in support of these proposals.

A few key issues dominated today's press conferences. First, how much will it cost? Will a house of 400 plus elected politicians, each on £50,000 a year, plus supporting staff and expenses, add sufficient value to Parliament to be worth the cost? In an age of austerity, this could be a pretty potent argument.

Second, will an elected Upper House become a rival to the Commons, perhaps claiming a greater democratic mandate, by virtue of being elected by PR? If so, would the result be deadlock in Parliament, with the Lords refusing to defer to the Commons? Would they throw out more bills, pass more amendments, reject more statutory instruments, and generally spend more time clashing with the Commons?

Interestingly, the crossbench super-lawyer Lord Pannick and former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, both told the committee that the Parliament Act, which gives MPs the ability to over-rule the Lords, would, in effect, lapse once an elected Upper House was in place. So the Commons could no longer insist on getting its way.

Third, should the electorate be consulted about the change via a referendum? The government argues that referenda are expensive and that, since all the main parties included commitments (of varying intensity) to reform the Lords in their manifestos, a referendum is not needed. Others retort that since the public was not offered any way to register a "no" to Lords reform at the last election, which hardly turned on that issue, a referendum is definitely needed.

All of which leaves plenty to fight about when a bill eventually comes before Parliament. The assumption is that such a bill will be promised when the government unveils its new legislative programme in the Queen's Speech, on 9 May. I would expect Labour to vote for the bill at second reading. But then Mr Miliband's opportunities to use the issue to drive a wedge between the coalition partners begin.

The detailed debate on the bill at committee stage will have to take place on the floor of the Commons, because this is a major constitutional measure. The government will need to pass a programme motion (or guillotine) allocating time for the discussion, and the anti camp - which will include a lot of Tory backbenchers - will probably oppose it.

Labour votes will be needed to pass the programme motion, and so they will be in a position to insist on a pretty lengthy committee stage, during which they can rub plenty of salt into coalition wounds, with lovingly prolonged debate on the many detailed questions the bill will have to address.

Labour's point man on constitutional reform, Sadiq Khan, is already staking out the referendum issue as one of his party's sticking points - they will insist on putting Lords reform to the public. The AV referendum poisoned the relations between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, and a Lords referendum fought in the same manner would doubtless be just as toxic.

This is a win-win issue for Labour. If Lords reform fails, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems look even more battered. If it succeeds, discontented Tory backbenchers will look for ways to vent their fury. So Mr Miliband, who has doubtless read his Lenin, will support Lords reform, as a rope supports a hanging man.

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