Tue, Feb 01, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Election bill tests patience and coherence of the House of Lords

A bill that would redraw Britain’s parliamentary boundaries has given rise to a bitter debate that could spell the beginning of the end for the House of Lords

By Sarah Lyall  /  NY Times News Service, LONDON

It was nearly midnight on Day 12 of the most grueling debate in recent House of Lords memory, and not all the lords present were, strictly speaking, awake. Nevertheless, the Right Honorable Lord Davies of Oldham was warming to the question of the hour: a proposal to change “may” to “should” on Page 10, Line 7 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

“If you have a criterion that says that you ‘may’ do something, that is not a positive criterion,” observed Davies, a Labour peer who once worked as a schoolteacher.

“It is the absence of a negative criterion. The phrase ‘may take into account’ means that, if you are minded to do so, if you really want to do so, we do not prevent you from doing so. We do not deny you the opportunity of doing so. However, there is no positive suggestion,” he said.

Give him points for enthusiasm, at least. With the coalition government and the Labour opposition both refusing to compromise on a measure that has severely divided them, the debate had already ground on for 98 hours across several weeks. The peers are not the youngest group of people ever to populate a legislature, and after several all-nighters, some Lords were reaching the outer limits of coherence, patience and stamina.

“These are old men and women who are pretty irritated at being here when normally they’d be tucked up in bed,” said Lord Hart, a Labour peer.

Fury is more like it. The situation has provoked so much resentment here that Lordly decorum has all but flown out of the chamber’s Pugin-designed stained-glass windows.

Things are so bad that when the government tried to buoy its members one night by offering a program of midnight entertainment that included talks by the Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes and former Olympian Sebastian Coe, members of the Labour Party were strictly uninvited.

“It’s never been like this before, with such a palpable sense of anger,” said Baroness d’Souza, convener of the cross-bench peers, who have no party affiliation. “I believe that if this isn’t resolved quickly, what we’re seeing is the beginning of the unraveling of the House of Lords.”

The bill would trigger a referendum on May 5 on whether to change the way election votes are calculated, and it would redraw Britain’s parliamentary boundaries, reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons to 600, from 650. The coalition government wants it, because it would fulfill the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to enact voting reform and because the Conservatives would benefit from the boundary changes.

Labour is resisting because, while it supports voting reform, it vehemently opposes the redistricting proposal. The measure must become law by Feb. 16 in order for the May 5 referendum to proceed and Labour is determined to delay the bill so that it misses the deadline.

Normally, opposition parties adopt a spirit of compromise and bonhomie in the House of Lords. Not this time. The government seems unwilling to budge and Labour has resorted to virtually unprecedented delaying tactics.

These include proposing picayune amendments — more than 270 so far — discussing them for hours, and then, because they have no chance of passage, withdrawing them.

While the Lords might not filibuster in the grand tradition of the US Senate, they can debate until the cows come home, as long as the topic is relatively germane to the bill.

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