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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:51 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:51 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, there has been a remarkable consensus around the House in this debate. My party would prefer a confirmatory referendum. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats in the Commons put down 17 amendments for a people’s vote and voted seven times on amendments to promote it. As my noble friend Lord Newby said earlier, we have come to the conclusion that the Commons lacks a majority for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said that the Labour Party is moving towards a confirmatory referendum, but there is a deadline—the third deadline. After two extensions, now to the end of next January, the member Governments of the European Union are beginning to lose patience with us and the question of whether we should have a further extension has been raised by several of them. Sadly, we cannot wait for the Labour Party’s position gradually and slowly to evolve further.

We would also have preferred the extension of the franchise to 16 year-olds and to EU citizens who are settled in this country, but we recognise that our electoral law is a collection of imperial and historical anomalies. Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in this country have the vote, while American and EU citizens who are long-term residents do not. These are important issues that we need to address, but in the next Parliament.

There has also been some discussion about the extent to which we are facing a constitutional crisis. A number of noble Lords do not like the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but underneath that there are some large questions about the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. I note that our current Prime Minister, that wonderful democrat who was vigorously campaigning three years ago to restore parliamentary sovereignty from subjection, as he put it, to the European Union, was last week quoted as calling for the people—by which I think he meant himself as the proclaimed representative of the people —to be freed from their subjection to Parliament. That sort of language is part of our problem, as he follows the path of Cromwell from great parliamentarian to great authoritarian.

We have an unwritten constitution, which depended on honourable men accepting its conventions. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, when answering a Question on the resignation of the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, on his ability to ignore the Ministerial Code in three different places by announcing, two days after resigning, that he was to become once again a highly paid columnist with the Daily Telegraph, said that, “There are no penalties for breaking the Ministerial Code. It depends upon honour”. Unfortunately, that is of course part of what we have been losing in our political life.

We have a crisis of our political system. We are supposed to have a two-party system in which, when the Government weaken, the Opposition are in a fit state to take over and become the Government instead. But what we now have are two entrenched parties, both deeply divided. We have suffered a long crisis of conservatism in the last 20 years, between one-nation conservatism and the libertarian free market right, with a Prime Minister now who pretends that he can somehow straddle the gap, as he uses inflammatory nationalist language at one point and then talks about the need for one-nation conservatism at another. The Labour Party is similarly split, between the centre left and radical socialism. We now know that single-party government does not provide strong and stable government. We perhaps need to begin adjust to a much more diverse electorate—in attitude and origin—and to multi-party politics and a stronger Parliament.

We need also to talk about the language and practice of politics. I ask the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when replying, to give us some assurances on this. The extent to which violent language has come into our politics in recent years is deeply damaging and one explanation why so many Members of Parliament are not standing again at the end of this Parliament. We know that our Prime Minister himself and the right-wing media have used inflammatory language. I find the demonisation of Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond, for example, by senior official sources in No. 10 as well as by the right-wing media, to be deeply shocking. Here are senior members of the governing party being demonised by the person some now call “Demonic Cummings”. I hope the noble Earl will say that there are those within the Government who are very concerned to make sure that, in an election campaign, dialogue and respect for alternative opinions are maintained. What the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, called the “ethos of Parliament” also needs to be the ethos of democratic debate.

A number of noble Lords talked about digital campaigning and spending. We know that our electoral law is in much need of reform, but we are not going to get it. I therefore hope that the noble Earl will be able to say something about the care with which the Government will encourage the Electoral Commission to monitor behaviour throughout the coming campaign.

Responsible politicians are needed on all sides if we are to regain popular trust. I remind noble Lords that, if we come to a result in this election in which a number of parties are elected to Parliament and none has an overall majority, that will also require responsible behaviour after the election—co-operation among parties and politicians, and respect for those of different opinions.