Finding Somewhere For the Birds To Sing.

Mar 21, 2012 | Uncategorized

Finding Somewhere For the Birds To Sing.
David Alton
    People take various routes into politics. Mine was the well trod path from local government into the House of Commons. I now sit as an independent in the Lords.
    Throughout the 1970s I served as a member of the Liverpool City Council and the now defunct Merseyside County Council. Beginning life as the council babe – as a precocious 21-year-old student, and the council’s youngest member – at various times I served as the Council’s Deputy Leader, as Chief Whip and Chairman of the Housing Committee. 
    Election to the House of Commons, in a bizarre by-election held the day after the Callaghan Government lost a vote of confidence, sent me to the Commons, once again as the enfant terrible (ital), but also as the shortest lived MP.  Only two or three days elapsed before the House was prorogued and MPs headed off to fight the 1979 General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
    Four weeks later, having endured two election campaigns and two election counts – I was one and a half stone lighter, and finally able to take stock of my new role: Member of Parliament for Liverpool’s Edge Hill Division, and one of  just 11 Liberal MPs, the rump of what was left of Mr.Gladstone’s patrimony.      
    I was struck by the powerlessness of the backbench MP in a tiny minority party.                  Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a working majority, the desultory Labour opposition was in a state of collapse and Marxist neophytes, in cities like my own, were beginning their long campaign of attrition to seize control of Labour.  Meanwhile, the former Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, was before the court on charges of conspiracy to murder, and it seemed very unlikely that a handful of diehard Liberals could make much difference in Parliament.
    I compared the resources that I had enjoyed in my local government role with those available to me now. As Housing Chairman, and as the Council’s deputy leader, I had access to officials and resources: decisions I promoted through the Local Authority ( on issues such as  building low cost homes for sale on inner city sites, promoting housing co-operatives, designating the biggest housing action area programme in Britain) made a real difference in the lives of under-privileged people. The contrast between being able to deliver inside sanitation and hot water to homes that had previously been without them (  50% of the homes in my Council Ward were without these basic amenities) and the ineffectual banalities of political slanging in the House could not have been greater.
    My part-time secretary, a dingy office, wholly inadequate resources to properly service the needs of constituents who deluged me in the desperate hope that I could put right some injustice, seemed a poor substitute for the realities of local government. And yet, and yet.
     Early on during my time in the Commons I decided that as well as playing a role in my party, I should simply take the opportunity that the Commons offered to pursue the causes about which I cared  and to relate the symptoms I saw on the ground in my constituency to the legislative causes: to become “a good constituency MP” and “a good parliamentarian”. In short, to use whatever time I had in the House to achieve small things.
     In retrospect, this was the right decision. Too many people now seem to go into Parliament in the mistaken hope of becoming something else – one of the great political panjandrums, climbing ladders that with another the of the dice take you back to where you started. The parliamentary game has many more snakes that propel you down than ladders to take you up.
    Enoch Powell was broadly right when he said that political careers end in failure, and the parliamentary landscape is littered with the wreckage of frustrated and failed ministerial careers. Festering bitterness followed by years of back-stabbing, seems a poor substitute for the satisfaction and fulfilment enjoyed by “campaigning” MPs.
    Parliament is also better for having more independent voices. The post-1997 Parliaments have been characterised by a slavish, unquestioning adherence that it took a War inIraq to end. This is not healthy for a parliamentary democracy. They say that for the pearl to emerge from the oyster a bit of grit has got to enter in. We need many more bits of grit in our House of Commons.
    E.M.Forster, says in  “Two Cheers for Democracy” (ital) that the saving grace of our parliamentary system is the cranky, often idiosyncratic MP who by dint of effort perseveres and get some injustice put right. No doubt dictatorships are easier systems to run operate but totalitarianism has little else to commend it.
    Democracies can be judged by the vigour and effectiveness of their oppositions: when the Loyal Opposition is in disarray and consumed by internecine warfare (pace Labour in 1979 and the Conservatives in 1997) it weakens the process of accountability.  When, during those same periods, internal opposition within the governing parties is stifled by the unedifying sight of aspirant career politicians waiting in the queue for buggins turn as a parliamentary under secretary of state, it makes matters even worse.
     If the unhappy soul, the aspiring politicians, only finds their voice when they have been passed over for the umpteenth time or sacked to make way for someone else, it isn’t usually conducive for the credibility (or for the quality of the views they then express). And hell knoweth no fury like a politician spurned.  
    I am not arguing that there is no role point in taking on arduous part responsibilities in politics, and that no one should ever leave the backbenches. Quite the reverse. If parties did not exist bands of independents would rapidly coalesce and for them. Alliances are the only way to create majorities capable of delivering votes and priorities. Independents inevitably have to sacrifice something from their own agenda in order to gain acceptance for a key objective: it is often described as the clash between purity and power but it is much more subtle than this and perfectly honourable. The sin is to surrender every last principle for the unalloyed pursuit of power and to forget why you probably came into politics in the first place.
    Phrases like “serving the people”, “public duty” and “civic responsibility” are now routinely scoffed at; but when I first entered Parliament there were a lot of Members (many of whom came into the Commons after serving in the forces during World War Two|) who genuinely and passionately believed in those virtuous reasons for engaging in politics. And who will say that the MPs who appeared before the House of Commons Privileges Committee, during the 1990s when I served a member investigating the “cash for questions” scandal, were driven by higher ideals?
       Although I am no longer a member of a political party I do not despise party politics. I do not condescendingly see it as “a necessary evil.” Parties are an indispensable part of the political architecture. If you can find one in which you can happily live, you should join a party and, if you are fortunate enough to hold elected office, work through the party to serve the needs and interests of your constituents. Churchill – who was a  Conservative, a Liberal and a Conservative again – said a man should not be without a party for too long. I agree but would simply add the caveat that it is not worth staying in a party at all costs.  
    I measure politicians by their causes – not by whether they are left, right, or centre. If they don’t have a cause of any kind then they are usually there for all the wrong reasons. And if they surrender or forget their causes, simply to make political progress, it isn’t usually good for them or, in the longer term, for their party or democracy generally.    
     For thirty years I was myself a party member. At various times, as Liberal Chief Whip, Chairman of its Policy Committee, its Finance Committee, its By-Election Unit,  and its Candidates Committee,  – and as its parliamentary spokesman on a whole raft of issues – I worked hard for its progress.
      As a Parliamentary Spokesman on Home Office, Environment, Local Government,Northern Ireland, and other portfolios, I did my fair share of “front bench” jobs in the Commons.  On numerous Standing Committees – where I served as a lone minority Member – I shadowed vast Bills on everything from telecommunications to Immigration.  Getting the balance between these duties, and being a “good constituency MP” – as well as pursuing non-party causes – was always difficult but one activity fed into and cultivated the other. I often found that the personal issues I was hearing about at weekly advice centres (which would often last for most of a day) would form the basis of an amendment to a Bill or a campaign.
      The more that politics is about a shelteredWestminsterexistence – informed only by the chatter of the Islington dining rooms and where PC stands for political correctness rather than political conviction or political courage, the less likely it is that politics will be relevant to ordinary people.
     If you want to know why only 6% of the people bothered to vote in a local government by-election; why only 1 in 3 voted in one inner city constituency at the last General Election; and why we have see the rise of groups like the British National Party – it is because politicians have abandoned grass-roots affinities with local communities and replaced day to day contact with real life and real issues with marginal fringe concerns.
      Politics has become obsessed with tick-box agendas driven on by well financed little lobby groups who pursue issues that are largely irrelevant to the vast majority of British people.
     I began my own interest in politics at seventeen as the Chairman of my local Young Liberal branch, later became the federation chairman and President of the National League of Young Liberals. I was also involved in the student movement and my college student union. The issues of the day – the Soviet oppression of the Prague Spring,Vietnam, British troops inNorthern Ireland, famine inWest Africa, and domestic legislation like the 1967 Abortion Act were all questions that fired my conscience and engaged me in the life of politics.  And then came my engagement in inner city community politics, getting elected to the City Council while I was in my final year at College
      My first real clash with my party came when I was 23 and fighting my parliamentary seat for the first time. A local councillor (one of our own) used his position to advance applications for housing grants and planning permissions on properties he owned. I exposed this and a motion was moved to expel me from the Party. No action was to be taken against the miscreant.  Happily, the local members saw the paradox and voted with me, against the party leadership, but it was nevertheless a useful baptism of fire.
       During the years that followed I rarely had any major differences with my colleagues over issues of principle.
      As Chief Whip I insisted that Members had the right to follow their conscience but that if they intended to vote against the spokesman’s position they had a duty to come and explain that to him and to me in advance. This worked very well and most of the time we able to be reasonably united without stifling independence. That said,  I never lost sight of the good advice that I was given when I was first elected to the Commons: “Don’t ever forget, David, over there sit the opposition: and all around you, that’s the enemy.”  
       This period – the 1980s – was a less happy time for members of the Labour Party, which had become riven by Left-Right warfare on a whole range of ideological issues.
       In the end, significant political players, such as David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, left Labour to found the Social Democrats. They were unable to accept, any longer, the attempts to coerce them into unacceptable gyrations on key questions such as the operation of a social market,Europeand defence.
      As Liberal Chief Whip during much of the period of the Liberal-SDP Alliance I saw, at close quarters, the destructive effect that Labour’s attempts to impose ideological straight-jacket had on many of their own members. It also subverted the role of an MP. Many of them returned to their constituencies only to be confronted by  small gaggles of activists attempting to intimidate and deselect them on a regular basis. The Birkenhead MP, Frank Field, spent most of the 1980s doing nothing other than fighting members of his local party who were determined to remove him as their MP. these battles threw into sharp relief Edmund Burke’s old question about whether an MP is a delegate or a representative.
     Ironically, although groups like the Trtskyite entryists, the Militant tendency, were ultimately defeated by Neil Kinnock, John Smith  and Tony Blair, New Labour is also prone to move power away from constituents into the hands of party activists albeit more surreptitiously and subtly.
     For instance, Labour’s decision to elect Members of the European Parliament by the closed-party list system vests huge power in the hands of a few hundred party activists. The electorate, for the very first time, have to vote for a take-it-or-leave-it party list and can no longer vote for individual candidates. This subverts Burke’s dictum and entrenches the hold of a party over their delegate. It dangerously erodes democratic accountability and saps the independence of the MEP. Many in the Labour Party have indicated that they would like to see the same system replace the first-past-the-post constituency system forWestminster.  This will merely entrench the power of the parties and the alienation of the voters.
     Blind allegiance to a political party should not be the bedrock of our political life but there is no great virtue in staying outside the flow if you can comfortably feel you can enter it.  
.       Historically, there have been a whole host of political players who have left their parties over shifts to left or right or because of individual issues of principle. Our two greatest Prime Ministers, W.E.Gladstone and Winston Churchill were amongst them.
      In trying to square political realities – pragmatism – with some sense of principled politics, I have personally adhered to what might be called the fifty per cent plus one rule:  that is, if you can broadly agree with a majority of a party’s platform it is possible to remain a member but when you find yourself in disagreement with a majority or significant part of its policies – or a particular issue of principle – then it is time to go.
      In 1992 I was faced with a dilemma that led me out of party politics. For the first time, the party decided to make abortion a matter of party policy. At the morning session of the party conference delegates had passed a policy resolution on animal welfare  – that included protection for goldfish on sale in fun fairs and amusement arcades. In the afternoon they then passed a resolution supporting the taking of life of the unborn, including the lives of disabled babies, who could be aborted up to and during birth. Unable to accept this, I announced that I would stand down and when that Parliament expired I did not renew my party membership.   
      Having kicked off the dust from my shoes and accepted a chair at Liverpool’s John Moores University – where I have been director of their Foundation for Citizenship – I was startled to be offered a life peerage by John Major in the dissolution honours list in 1997. I opted to sit as an independent Crossbencher.
      The Upper House was just about to be “reformed”, so the ensuring seven years have given me plenty of food for thought about the role of the second chamber and its members.
      One of the traditional attractions of the Lords is that those who sat there – whether hereditary or life peers – had a healthy independence and willingness to send back Bills to the House of Commons. During Margaret Thatcher’s years the only time she suffered parliamentary defeats was at the hands of the unelected House of Lords. Tony Blair, on issues such as trial by jury and fox hunting, has suffered the same fate.
    Labour had a manifesto commitment to abolishing the hereditary peerage. Their failure to say what they would put in its place led some of us to vote against giving them a blank cheque until they spelt out what reform would mean.
     The Prime Minister’s attachment to an all-appointed House vests great power in the hands of politicians who will generally use their patronage merely to reward “services rendered” – everything from donations to party coffers to unquestioning loyalty. Clearly this will not deliver independence or a robust bicameral legislature. I voted against such a system and voted, instead, for a fully elected House. Of the various options on offer (in all, seven variations, all of which were rejected by the House of Commons), a small elected House, modelled on the US Senate, perhaps with a one-term membership of seven to ten years – would be better than a House lampooned for “cronyism.”      
     It would be absurd, though, to suggest that the Lords has proved incapable of change or evolution.
     Until the seventeenth century Peers sat in the House in strict order of precedence – the Lords Spiritual on the right of the throne (and Church of England bishops still sit there until this day) and the Lords temporal on the left. Increasing membership led the authorities to put in more seats to accommodate the newly arrived Viscounts and Barons of the day.
     In 1876 the Appellate Jurisdiction Act allowed Law Lords to sit as Life Peers and in 1958 the creation of life peers created a permanent change in the composition and balance of the House. Earlier, in 1911 the Parliament Act – following a confrontation between the Liberal Government and the Lords – had seen its powers emasculated.   
     The changes made by the Blair Government in the 1999 House of Lords Act – ending the automatic right of Hereditary Peers to sit and vote – were only the latest of these changes.
   Personally, I am always saddened that beyond the debate about political legitimacy that so little is ever said about the role played by individual hereditary peers who have often given devoted and non-partisan public service. I am also cynical about an argument for abolition that rested on democratic legitimacy and replaced hereditary peers with appointed peers. Owing your seat to a dead ancestor may even make you less biddable than owing your seat to a living Prime Minister.
    The role of the independent Crossbench peers continues to be especially important in trying to hold to account the political machines and government.
     In January 2000 the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords,  chaired by Lord Wakeham, published its findings and pointed to the pivotal influence of the Crossbenches. Many peers believe that the built-in majority that the Conservative Party had always traditionally enjoyed in the Lords was no longer tenable but if this was not simply to be replaced by a Labour Party ascendancy, the best way to proceed was the creation of roughly equitable numbers between Government and Opposition with the Crossbenches holding the balance.
    So who exactly are the Crossbenchers?
     Peers in the Lords who do not take a party whip (i.e. they are not told how to vote by a political party) sit on the Crossbenches. They are well known for their independent. non-party political stance. They are people who have chosen not to accept a party allegiance for a whole host of reasons. Some come from outside the realm of politics; some are actively involved in work away from parliament and only come when issues arise where they feel they have specialised knowledge to offer. Others have been in political parties but want the independence that the Crossbenches permit.
      Many Crossbenchers have specialist expertise drawn from diverse disciplines – including academia, science, industry, the countryside, the armed forces, and the diplomatic service. Their contributions are always listened to with particular respect when they are speaking about their own discipline – and, in deed, they can have considerable influence on the outcome of debates.
     There are about 180 Crossbench Peers (about  150 life peers and just under 30 remaining hereditary peers). The 12 Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (the Law Lords) were also included in the Crossbench numbers. they are now part of the separated Supreme Court. In 2001 the Government famously appointed 15 individuals (selected by the House of Lords Appointment Commission) – dubbed by the media as the “people’s peers” – who also sit on the Crossbenches.    
    During  one Session alone some 9,782 amendments were made in the Lords to Bills. The role of peers in scrutinising legislation, in a far less adversarial atmosphere than the Commons, is clearly crucial.  Many of those amendments were either enacted or formed the basis for compromise agreements being made with the Government.
     Crossbenchers are uniquely placed in drawing together cross-party coalitions. They also take their own initiatives, such as sponsoring private Members’ Bills. They have also regularly chaired the many influential Committees that have prepared reports that have then provided a framework for both legislations and the wider debate about public policy.
     One good example of this was the 1999 Protection of Children Act that was introduced by my colleague Lord Laming. Coming from a distinguished social services background he was ideally placed to introduce a Bill that among other things provided for lists to be compiled of those who are unsuitable to work with children.
     The Lords is also takes very seriously its role as a scrutinising chamber. A series of committees evaluate all of the legislation that issues from the European Parliament while all UK Primary Legislation (with the exception of Finance Bills) has to come under the glare of House of Lords scrutiny. This is work that will be deepened in the future.
    The role of both Houses of Parliament, the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and in the future, to some of the English regions – the role of local democracy and directly elected mayors, and the redefinition of individual citizenship, have been preoccupations of the past decade.
    Over the previous twenty five years these issues were largely neglected. Apart from the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils in 1973, governance issues were rarely concerns of the Conservative governments of 1979-97.
     While they were busy modernising industrial law and the British economy, the party of Burke and the Constitution, the party also of Chamberlain’s municipalism,   was surprisingly disinterested in re-examining and reforming governance. In retrospect, and as they reflect on the nature of Lords reform and the introduction of measures such as the closed party list system of voting – they may come to see what an error this was.
     That the way in which we govern ourselves has once again become a central political concern is something I welcome. What I regret, is that tinkering around with the system now passes for reform, and that gaining a short-term partisan advantage has become a greater prize than entrenching sound democratic structures and real accountability.
    Thoreau once said that if you cut down all the trees, there will be nowhere left for the birds to sing.  InBritain, our great oaks of central and local government,  are something to prize and preserve. Before hacking away at their branches we need much greater thought and reflection.  

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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