Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Speech to The House of Lords debate on The Constitutional and Parliament Effect of Coalition Government

SPEECH BY THE RT HON LORD OWEN

20 JANUARY 2011

My Lords, the circumstances in which this Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came into existence need to be recalled. It was against a very serious financial crisis, a large structural fiscal deficit and a feeling in the country that, as a result of the negotiations, we had to have a Government which would, first, carry conviction in international markets-their first challenge, which they met very successfully-and, secondly, start to deal with the structural fiscal deficit. They have started on that and I hope the jury is out, certainly among economists, as to whether they have moved too swiftly and too harshly or whether they have judged the situation correctly and that it will be proven in the next year or two.

So I think we can be generous to the coalition for its primary task, which was responding to the financial challenge facing the country. Where it seems to me that the coalition went wrong was in its private negotiations, and it is about the crux issues which we are facing. The House is now considering two Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. One deals with changing the voting system and the other deals with changing the constituencies. Both are highly sensitive in politics, and we should recognise that because it is at the root of who wins the next general election. The other constitutional Bill, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, is crucial to it. It has not yet been debated in this House, but we need to understand that five years allows for the changes to the constituencies, and that is the essence of why five years has been chosen. Four years would have been running it very tight.

It is helpful and pleasing that the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in this House are here today. We all know that we are now into negotiations. I welcome those negotiations, and I must say that I am not shocked. I did not participate-I am too old to participate in all-night sittings-but I am a veteran of all-night sittings in the other place, and we all know perfectly well that it is when you go through the Lobbies at three or four o’clock in the morning that you start to question why you are there. We also know that it has often been the case that-as a result of using the power of delay, the strongest power in a democracy-negotiations are forced and common sense comes about. So I wake up each morning to wonder whether your Lordships are all sitting, and I was not sure that this debate would even take place. I am therefore not at all shocked by it, and I hope that wiser heads will prevail.

May I offer a few possible solutions? The previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is not often given enough credit for some of the things he has done. In the negotiations, he offered the Liberal Democrats a solution to their real problem, which is their aim to change the voting system. He offered them a three-option referendum: first past the post, the alternative vote-which his party at that time was keen on-and proportional representation. Effectively, as I understand it, if they had waited long enough to hear the detail of the negotiation, they could have chosen the system. They would presumably have made a choice between AV-plus-the recommendation of the Jenkins commission-and STV, which most of them preferred, but they may well have thought they had less chance of getting that through. It was a perfectly rational offer.

The other negotiation was over AV and first past the post. The mistake was to offer a referendum on this basis, because that is taking a party-political fix into a referendum. That is not legitimate. If you wish to have this issue resolved by referendum-which I personally think is good and right, as I do not think it should be forced by a party fix-then the people must be given a proper choice, and a proper choice should include the third option of proportional representation. It is a democratic disgrace that we in this House, it seems, are incapable of bringing this about. We already have had an amendment discussed. At the moment, the indications are there is no chance of getting this through this House, and I cannot understand why.
The best solution would be if the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister came to their senses and offered a proper referendum choice-a three-part choice. That is the democratic solution. If they do not do this, this House will then face another question: should we do what was done in 1978 and put in a threshold of legitimacy?

I looked up that famous debate when the House of Commons decided that there had to be a 40 per cent threshold for Scottish devolution. I am glad to say that I did not vote, so there is no embarrassment; however, there is no doubt that it was premature. I supported Scottish devolution-I am a long-standing supporter-but in 1979 it did not have the wholehearted consent of the British people, and certainly not in Scotland. In retrospect that extra 21 years after which there was the wholehearted consent of the Scottish people on the referendum was time well spent. We need to be very careful. It seems quite wrong to have a referendum limited to AV and first past the post and run the very distinct possibility of an extremely low poll because it has been forced through.

I then come to the second compromise area. Why are we forcing it through? There is going to be a five-year fixed-term and the Liberal Democrats in my view have made a historic misjudgment. They had the opportunity to demonstrate the coalition’s worth to the people of this country. If they had only been careful and waited, say, three years, during which time they might have seen an economic recovery for which they would deservedly get benefit and three years of a successful coalition, and I think they would have won the referendum, even if just confined to AV. However, by insisting that it coincides with the May elections it is very likely to coincide with a period of massive unpopularity. The compromise will not change this, but the compromise would be to fix the date of the referendum by regulation in the legislation. Again, this is practical common sense. Who wants to fix a date for a referendum-which they want to win-effectively a year in advance, without any knowledge of what public opinion was likely to be? That was the fundamental mistake. I suspect the Conservative Party and the present Prime Minister gave the Deputy Prime Minister what he wanted and let him choose-it is his issue and the Prime Minister does not agree with it anyhow. This is the nub of the issue, although you may, in negotiations, deal with lots of other issues, and there comes the question for the future.

There is no doubt that pre-legislative committees have proved themselves. They ought to be mandatory on constitutional questions and I think the sooner we make that change the better. If we choose to use referendums-and to be honest, we choose to use them usually when it is a big issue and the parties are divided among themselves-it would be a very good thing to give the Electoral Commission a locus on the legitimacy of the question, not just on the wording. It is illegitimate to have a referendum that is not a fair choice of options for the British people.

Then we come to the whole question of how we handle the other various issues. We had three successive contributions from constitutionalists and historians, if I can put that way. The noble Lord, Lord Plant, very accurately said that the manifesto has become a quasi-contract. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, expressed his belief in the value of pre-legislative committees and the value of negotiations, which, all together, are crucial. We also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, about the history of the way coalitions work. We have a lot to learn about coalitions and need to pace ourselves. A coalition Government coming about in the circumstances of the present time need a little more modesty.

I end by asking if anyone thinks that the Health and Social Care Bill-two volumes, double the size of the Bill that brought in the National Health Service-is not, in the words of the head of the NHS Confederation, a revolution; or, in the words of the Conservative MP for Totnes, herself a GP, that the Government have not tossed a hand grenade into PCT-land. This, in my view, is a Bill that has no mandate and no possible area of support from the parties that are now forming a coalition. They should think about that as well.

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