Yesterday, as I had my first interview since returning to the UK, the Government had its first rebellion over Tax Credit cuts for low paid workers. Both saw highs, lows and emotive language, as the Conservatives were dealt a major blow by non-Conservative Lords over the important and controversial measures.
Michael Ellis, the MP for Northampton North, stated the Government view simply to The Independent, saying that “We cannot have a situation where an unelected House overrules a democratically elected one.”
George Osborne seemed in much the same mind, telling the BBC that “Unelected Labour and Liberal Lords have defeated a financial matter passed by the elected House of Commons … this raises constitutional issues.”
At a glance there are some constitutional problems here, and it would appear that the Lords are at fault for not respecting the supremacy of the elected Commons. However, a bit of a closer look reveals that, while there are issues here, they are not what they appear to be. The papers have been eager to break down the finer constitutional points in play here, but lets go to the core of the matter first: Our democratic constitution exists to ensure that we are governed correctly by a transparent government who act according to our wishes and in line with their own promises.
So, was the lead up to this policy transparent and in line with Conservative promises?
No, as well as Cameron’s repetitive assurances that Tax Credits would not drop, Michael Gove and several other MPs have gone on record saying that there will be no cuts both before and after the election.
Is the Government acting according to the wishes of the British public?
Recent polls suggest Not. YouGov surveyed 1595 Brits on whether they felt that the proposed changes to tax credits were fair; only 26 percent of people agreed that they were fair while 46 percent opposed them. Meanwhile 53 percent of people surveyed by the organisation believe that those on low wages will be worse off in general while only seven percent believe that low earner’s situation will be improved.
So it seems that the Government is not respecting the wishes of its voters or even meeting its own promises. This is why the much touted Salisbury Convention only protects financial policies that were included in the ruling party’s manifesto from Lords intervention. The supremacy of the House of Commons is only protected when the Government is open and honest with its people and here this isn’t the case. As the Conservatives didn’t include the cuts in their manifesto and in fact explicitly opposed the cutting of tax credits in the media, this isn’t the democratic or constitutional crisis that it would appear to be. The Lords can be seen to be overriding the word of the Constitution, but evidence would suggest that they are defending its core values at the same time.
There may be a lot of bluster from the Conservatives about unelected Lords overriding elected MPs but the truth is that the interests of the electorate are being protected by the ‘Labour and Liberal Lords’ that Osborne berates while the Conservative majority in the Commons sits beneath the whip and watches a questionable policy crawl through its ranks.