Michael Crick suggests that whatever the outcome of the referendum on the Alternative Vote on 5th May Nick Clegg will be unveiling an even bigger LibDem “consolation” prize later in the same month: the draft Bill on House of Lords reform.

He argues:

“Most psephologists reckon that AV would have given the Lib Dems perhaps 15 or 20 extra seats at the 2010 election. And the Lib Dem gain from AV would be a lot lower if their support falls to the kind of levels currently suggested in the polls.

AV would be nothing like as rewarding as proper PR, under which the Liberal Democrats would have got around 140 seats in 2010. And contrary to what the No campaign have been suggesting, AV wouldn’t give the Lib Dems a permanent place in government or mean that we will have coalition government for evermore. It only makes such outcomes a bit more likely.

In contrast, Lords reform could give the Lib Dems a lot more power in the long term – what might almost amount to a permanent veto on legislation.

The Coalition Agreement commits the parties to a new upper chamber that would be “wholly or mainly elected” elected. That’s now likely to mean 80% elected, but also, crucially, it is generally expected the new chamber would be elected under proportional representation (PR).

That would probably mean the Lib Dems held the balance of power in the new upper house on an almost permanent basis. So even if future governments had a majority in the Commons (thanks to First-Past-the-Post), they could only get legislation through the Lords with the approval of the Lib Dems.

OK, you can argue that neither this government, nor its Labour predecessor had a majority in the Lords, so they, too, have had to build consensuses among peers to get their bills through, and under Labour that usually meant Lib Dem support. But the Liberal Democrats’ position would be far more powerful in a democratically reformed PR Lords.

First, in the current Lords the 93 Lib Dem peers have to compete for this balance-of-power role with a much larger group of 184 independent cross-bench peers. It depends on the detail of the reformed Lords, and presumably there will be some role for independents, but nonetheless the crossbenchers are likely to be a much smaller group in a chamber that is primarily elected.

Second, the elected nature of the second chamber will give it a greater legitimacy than now, and so it will be less likely to back down in disputes with the Commons (a reason many MPs are wary of making the Lords more democratic).”

So the net result of the Coalition would be that the LibDems will have “achieved” a series of constitutional changes:

  • fixed five-year Parliaments (assuming the Bill passes);
  • perpetual redrawing of House of Commons boundaries;
  • an electoral system (depending on the referendum result) for the House of Commons that makes a LibDem role in future Governments more rather than less likely; and
  • an entrenched LibDem veto on all future legislation through a reformed House of Lords.

I suspect none of these innovations are high up on the public’s current list of priorities but maybe it is enough to keep LibDem activists quiescent about the implications of staying in a Conservative-led Coalition intent on dismantling public services.

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