Sleepless nights

Wednesday’s sitting of the House was another late one.  It was not an all-night sitting as on Monday, but we did sit until 3.00 a.m.   There were votes, the last one at 2.00 a.m., so I was able to prove that I was actually there.   At least I got a few hours of proper sleep, but I had to be back in the House for meetings on Thursday morning and to take part in the debate on the constitutional and parliamentary consequences of coalition government.   The debate itself was a good one but somewhat overshadowed by the continuing controversy over Opposition filibustering on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  I am not sure why some peers deny there is a filibuster.  There is a filibuster.  That’s not really the issue.  The important question is whether or not it is justified.

Yesterday’s debate can be read here.  Comments welcome.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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15 Responses to Sleepless nights

  1. Carl.H says:

    “The important question is whether or not it is justified.”

    My Lord I was disappointed in the House in general this week, it became what I expect it to be should it be elected, partisan. I was totally disappointed that the Lords on the Government benches are not treating this bill as others insomuch as seeing that these major constitutional changes have not had the pre-legislative scrutiny they are deserving of. The mere fact that 600 was chosen out of thin air is contemptable, it is neither scientific or evidence based.

    Should this matter have been about their Lordships House most would have ripped it to shreds and it was really disappointing to see so many sheep. That was until the Isle of Wight became an issue then of course there was a change of heart but there are possibly many other instances where similar can be applied and a small portion of water in this age should not make such a difference. Indeed if one looks at some of our countryside and our recent bad weather water would be preferable as a dividing line.

    I agree with the noble Lord that it is a filibuster but feel in this case it is justifiable. Not that I will agree that Labour peers are being more independent or honourable but the rest of the House is not being so. This bill deserves so much more, it is too complex to be lumped together in the way it is. The number of MP`s must be evidenced based from an independent source and have cross party agreement else what is to stop the next Labour Government from raising the figure to 700, aside from a Lords House that the Coalition will ensure is in it`s favour. Sheer stupidity! Such constitutional changes should not be treated as they are at present.

    This is a constitutional issue and this coalition Government, not of the electorates making or backing, is rushing through many changes they intend to make that WILL completely change our way of electing and Governing. The system is complex, minor changes may have major consequences and without scrutinising in the minutest of detail we may regret these apparent rushed bills.

    I am at a loss to understand to understand the Government benches, I can only presume they are seeking to satisfy Government for the moment knowing they will later, at Lords Reform Bill time, then go against the wishes of the coalition. Which will be interesting as in both of the coalitions manifesto’s was reform of the House.

    Filibuster ? Yes. Justifiable ? Undeniably so but only because the Government benches are not treating the bill as they would any other.

  2. tory boy says:

    After the debate on the motion that the house be now resumed the house seemed to get its act together on Wednesday and the Labour Party stopped playing games for a while, yet after a few hours they want back to there bad and foolish habits. Lord Falconer on the Daily Politics on Thursday BBC 2, seemed to indicate that they (the opposition) were going to continue to bring the house into disrepute on Monday with there filibustering. The game goes on!

    • Carl.H says:

      Hasn`t the House been in disrepute for years, in the publics eye, by not saying no often enough ? It doesn`t work just one way you know !

  3. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    In the opinion of a Noble Lord, “In the 30 years during which I have looked at parliamentary procedures, things have substantially deteriorated. To be fair, the rot set in in the House of Commons. I believe that the automatic timetabling of business was a great mistake. I very much regret that the present Government have not felt able to remove that from the House of Commons. Timetable Motions are, of course, sometimes necessary; in my experience, in many cases the Opposition want the timetable Motion because it is a very practical way for them to show complete opposition to a Bill. They would much sooner have a guillotine to demonstrate that point and then have some orderly planning of the rest of the debate than what has been going on in the past few days-I said that I would not talk about the past few days, so I will not.”

    In my country’s Senate the rules may change but it is not debatable that the filibuster is a right as such. Perhaps, while self-regulation is much extolled there is not such an open position in the HoL. That is too subtle for me to determine here. I note two things that indicate filibuster condition in the speech above. The Noble Lord appears strained and annoyed in my opinion. He feels the need to discuss procedure and time.
    In the US Senate things can (albeit extremely rarely) get much worse than they have in Your Lordship’s House so far. Mentally exhausted opposition Senators unable to think really may say. “I think the mail generated by this issue justifies reading the Postal code in full.” They may say “I have spoken of my constituent support I would now like to read the names of the fine people of my State from our capital city’s phone book so this Senate may take cognizance of them”. In that regard there truly are no limits as of right now and the past 120 years at least. Is such blatancy legal in the HoL? If not then that may be why a filibuster is not proclaimed…

  4. djb13 says:

    For my two bits, filibusters are never justified unless the next best option for action is physical violence or a general strike. A filibuster is essentially a withdrawal of consent by (a sect of) the governing class from the system of government. That, to my mind, puts it on a level with other types of revolutionary action. Not to say that those forms of action are never justified, but over AV and constituencies, I think conventional political channels will suffice. This was just as true as when a rightwing minority filibustered in the Senate, as when a leftwing minority filibusters in the House of Lords, as if Lord djb13 is leading the filibuster of the UKIP government’s ‘Are There No Workhouses Act 2030’ you are more than welcome to remind me of this.

    • djb13 says:

      Sorry, just to confirm, those sorts of revolutionary action are not justified in my view in the current British political system, at all, over any bill. That looked disturbingly like an endorsement of the SWP. I was making reference to bringing down dictatorial regimes elsewhere in the world.

  5. Edward Brunsdon says:

    I’d like to comment on what you said in your speech about the Cabinet Office manual if I may :

    “This takes us beyond description of a political decision to a constitutional precept. It says that discussions “will take place”, not that they may take place. This is not only questionable as a statement of practice but, if maintained, could give rise to legal challenge.”

    I agree with you that this is very worrying indeed. Firstly – I already feel that Gus O’Donnell behaved inappropriately after the election, especially given the precidents of 1923/4 ; 1929 and Feb 1974. In all three of these cases, there were outgoing Conservative Governments. The latter two had won fewer seats than Labour and so went as soon as it was clear that they couldn’t expect to command a majority in the HoC. Baldwin had more seats than Labour in 1923/4 so it wasn’t unreasonable to test the will of the House and to have hung on over Christmas and NY.
    Therefore, the precident appears to be that if you have fewer seats than the other major party, the onus is on YOU to prove you can have a serious chance of holding a majority. This is also the case in Canada where a minority Conservative Government took over from a minority Liberal Government when the CPC overtook the Grits in terms of number of seats at the 2006 election. However – this time (UK – 2010) O’Donnell seemed to want to put the onus on the Conservatives to prove they had a working majority – and that is serious enough breach.

    Now – it seems that the civil servants are now trying to make up even more new rules. Suppose the Conservatives won 323 seats, that would not technically be a majority – but we know Sinn Fein don’t take the oath, and so 323 would be enough – would the rules insist on negotiations then anyway? Would they need a signed letter from Gerry & Martin stating they and their members would not be taking their seats ?

    Finally, if the minor parties don’t like it, they have a perfectly democratic recourse already, to wit, a censure motion in the new Government. The courts and civil servants have no business meddling.
    …..
    One other point if I may – I notice thats the second time recently in a constitutional themed debate you spoke immediately after Lord Plant of Highfield, is that co-incidence or some kind of order of batting?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Edward Brunsdon: Many thanks. On your last point, it is (as far as I am aware!) purely coincidental. In a number of debates, I have followed or preceded another member of the Hull mafia.

  6. ladytizzy says:

    Frankly, the speeches after midnight could have been sponsored by the Scottish Tourist Board. And, if Lord Martin yearns so for his Labour membership, can the new Clerk organise a whip round and help him out? Excruciating.

    As to whether this filibuster is justified, it isn’t. The two aspects of this Bill were prominent in the manifesto of either the Tories or the Lib Dems, and appeared in the Coalition Agreement. Whether I agree, or not, with the Bill is irrelevant.

    • Carl.H says:

      Lady Tizzy is correct in that a reduction in Parliamentary size was prominent in both manifesto’s however I can find nothing on altering boundaries or that the size of Parliament would be guessitimated without proper detail being looked at.

      “Whether I agree, or not, with the Bill is irrelevant.”

      I think it is relevent. I would assume that Lady Tizzy thinks the Salisbury Convention should hold true in this case but the facts in the manifesto’s were not really facts merely a generalisation. The Government must be held to account on the details, which is what scrutiny and amendments are about. Everyone appears to be stating that Labour are being partisan in this and I believe the reverse, doing nothing can be decisive.

      We saw that Conservative members wanted a special case on the Isle of Wight and got it but had total disregard to other areas that may prove a problem. There are multiple instances where changing boundaries will create instances of safe seats and as some of the electorate say times when their votes are wasted.

      Everything is relevant. The unscientific number of 600, the unknowns of boundary changes where the Government state clearly they have no research to show how it will affectparty seats, if you believe that. The facts that such a great change in our constitution shouldhave all party support else whats to stop Labour doing similar next time ?

      Unlike Baroness Murphy I do not agree that the House should merely be a Committee dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. The Parliament Act was created for a reason and that reason is the Houses ability to throw out bills. That ability has to be retained.

      The manifesto issues on this were such a generalisation they really cannot count. It would be similar to saying we’re going to cut the deficit in a year, which would sound great till you got to the nitty gritty of how. It is the how Parliament is going to be restructured that needs debate, that has to have cross party support.

      In the manifestos is also Lords reform in a great more detail,will all the peers who are complaining now simply roll over again ? My guess is a great deal will not and rightly so in my opinion.

      Can we honestly say that the House of Lords must apply the Salisbury convention to what is in effect a generalisation ? Should we allow the system of election and Parliament to be altered completely by a Government of two parties – one without a majority and the other, the smallest of three who lost seats at the last election ? A system of you scratch my back and together we`ll oust the other major political party. The rules of the game should not be altered without all teams support. There are three teams involved none of which have an outright majority, none at this moment in time has the right to alter the rules.

      • djb13 says:

        The House has an ability to throw out the bill, and has chosen not to exercise it. This is an Opposition attempt to subvert the rules of the House because they didn’t get their way under the proper rules of the political system the first time round. If Labour aren’t happy with the ability of the Elected Chamber to stack the Appointed Chamber with their supporters, then they had 13 years to do something about it, when they controlled the Elected Chamber.

        I find the way that everyone treats a filibuster as though it were merely a more extreme version of voting against a bill most confusing. I really don’t understand why we treat an attempt to subvert a political system by part of the governing class any differently to the way that we treat an attempt to subvert the political system by part of the governed class.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Carl, altering the boundaries is the only way to reduce the number of seats, surely?

        My opinion of the Bill is not relevant here, the question is whether I believe the Opposition’s behaviour is justified. For me, it isn’t/wasn’t simply a matter of the content of their speeches, as bad as that has been with many, but also their previous form in partisanship.

        However, their conduct has served a purpose: this is what an elected upper house would be doing day in, day out.

  7. ladytizzy says:

    WalkingWoundedWatch: Lord Soley’s right wrist was heavily bandaged.

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