Coalition can learn from Lords reform failures of Wilson

THIS week’s massive backbench rebellion by 91 Conservative MPs was the largest Commons rebellion to have hit the coalition since 2010, the largest rebellion on Lords reform in the post-war era, and the largest rebellion at the second reading of a bill on any issue since 1945. But the most important vote was the one that didn’t take place. Facing almost certain defeat, the government pulled the vote on the bill’s programme motion, which would have set out the timetable for debate.

If you want to know why this is important, take a look at the Parliament (No. 2) Bill. Most people won’t have heard of it. Both its prominent political supporters, like Richard Crossman (Labour) and Reggie Maudling (Conservative), as well as its opponents, like Enoch Powell (Conservative) and Michael Foot (Labour), are now dead. And the bill itself died in 1969, battered beyond repair.

The Parliament (No. 2) Bill was Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s attempt at House of Lords reform and just like today’s bill, it was criticised for being a dog’s breakfast.

When the White Paper came before the Commons in 1968, a total of 47 Labour MPs defied their whip to vote against it. The Conservatives gave their MPs a free vote and voted more than 2 to 1 against the bill.

Just as they did this week, the government achieved the bill’s second reading without too much trouble (although just like this week the hostility shown during the debate should have been a warning of what was to come).

With no programming motion the government endured a torrid time once it entered committee, with backbench opponents on both sides moving hostile amendment after amendment, and participating in filibuster after filibuster. Powell and Foot, both vehemently opposed for very different reasons, came together in an unholy alliance.

Between its second reading in November 1968 and the final vote in April 1969, the government suffered 45 separate backbench rebellions, spread over 80 hours of debate, much of it in all-night sittings. The end came after the nineteenth separate closure motion, when the government failed to muster enough supporters to achieve closure. With only five of the bill’s 20 clauses having been discussed the government gave up, exhausted.

And that is why, more than 40 years later, the government needs, somehow, to secure a programme motion if it wants to proceed. It’s not just the only way of getting Lords reform through the Commons, it’s the only way to avoid gumming up their entire legislative programme for the rest of the year.

Pulling the motion on Tuesday was sensible politics, but getting a revised motion through is going to be near impossible. Conservative rebels have shown no willingness to bend, while Labour, who support the bill in principle, are unwilling to help the coalition out, just as the Conservatives refused to help Wilson out in 1969.

Philip Cowley is professor of parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham, and author of The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave).