progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Big meetings, martyrs, and why Lords reform matters

Reform of the House of Lords isn't keeping many people from sleeping at night. Apart from David Cameron and Nick Clegg, of course. For most people, if they're kept awake by worries it's the increased cost of living, worries about the worsening economic situation on their job or business. Not that reforming the House of Lords isn't important: after all, if we don't elect politicians, then we can't expect our concerns to be given consideration.

Movements like the Chartists and Suffragettes succeeded in getting the right to vote extended to all adult citizens because people saw it was a means to have other issues addressed. The same goes for electing the second chamber - elected Senators will represent popular concerns more than appointed Lords.

It's true that on a list of immediate priorities, Lords reform doesn't come close to the top. Though it's provoked infighting that has not been witnessed over other issues such as cuts to public expenditure or the weakening economy. A significant number of Tory MPs regard Lords reform as being symbolic of disproportionate Lib-Dem influence over the coalition. For the Liberal Democrats, the prospect of reforming the Lords is something which has kept the party's MPs voting for Tory policies over the past two years.

Lords reform is unfinished business for the Labour Party - like electoral reform, it's a worthy cause which doesn't rank highly in the everyday concerns of MPs or ordinary party activists. More importantly, it isn't ranked highly by members of the general public.

The position taken by the Labour Party in parliament - to support an elected upper house, but insist that the government's proposals be debated in detail and then put to the people in a referendum - made it easier for Tory MPs to rebel. But it made it harder for Cameron to drop the subject completely.

The biggest rebellion by Tory MPs in the course of the government says a lot about Cameron's leadership of his party, and the values of many Tory MPs. There's a mistaken assumption by many Tories that Cameron is constrained by sharing power with Clegg - that if not for the Liberals, the government would be more Eurosceptic, more socially conservative. It's an illusion he's in no rush to shatter: he actively encourages it.

Cameron, when under pressure from his backbenchers or an opinion poll surge in popularity for UKIP, might make a speech or gesture (remember the veto that didn't veto?) but these are tactical rather than strategic moves. He wants to prolong the coalition, to ensure it continues after 2015 - and he can't do this if it looks like his backbenches are in revolt against him.

Clegg, meanwhile, is under pressure from his own side to distance the Lib-Dems from the Tories. He'll want to give the impression that the coaltion might not continue after 2015 - but if he's serious, he would be leading his party out of coalition and leaving a minority Tory government to fend for itself.

It's worth remembering that just as Lords reform has a troubled history, so do Tory/Liberal coalitions. Lib-Dems often mention that an elected second chamber has been delayed for 100 years. But there's no historical awareness of what happened the last time the Liberals joined a Tory-led government. The Liberal cause suffered in the 30s as the party acted as a human shield for the Tories - why do they expect anything different today?

Clegg mentioned in his speech to parliament which introduced the first reading of the Lords reform bill that people had "struggled for centuries" to achieve democratic representation. He didn't mention against whom they had struggled, nor to what end. The answer, of course, is that the struggle was met with opposition from the Conservative Party and the corporate and financial interests which fund it - they have always opposed greater democratic participation because it gets in the way of what they want to do.

The end to which people have struggled for democracy is improved and secure conditions of life - a living wage for a good job, decent housing in a safe community, swift treatment when ill and a helping hand in hard times. These are the sort of things which don't pay dividends nor deliver huge bonuses, because when ordinary people have a say in the big decisions of the day they bring their own interests to the debate. Hence the opposition from the party of the few, the Tories, to letting the many decide on who sits in the upper house.

If an elected second chamber is achieved it will be because the party has kept the issue alive in recent decades and because of the votes of Labour MPs. The same goes for other ambitions of the Liberal Democrats such as greater employee ownership - recommendations in a report launched by Nick Clegg recently will be readily supported by Labour but face strong resistance from Tories. And the kind of genuine reforms to the banking sector which are sought by Lib-Dem business secretary Vince Cable can only come about with the pressure of the Labour leader Ed Miliband and the votes of Labour MPs.

This weekend the Ed Miliband will be appearing at the "big meeting" in Durham, the miners' gala, as the first Labour leader in too many years to take up the invitation to address the crowds. Though the pits have closed, the communities that were established around them are still there and remember their history. The annual gathering has survived because of the strength of collective action - colliery bands follow banners, union branches from all sectors of the economy and across the Northern regions and Scotland, flow through the city centre to a field with a funfair, stalls, and a stage. Not everyone is there for the labour movement politics or the speakers on the stage - many come just because it's a free and family-friendly gathering - but I'm sure Ed Miliband will get a warm welcome from the thousands who attend.

At the same time this weekend, a similar event will take place in Dorset, where the Tolpuddle Martyr's Festival and Rally commemorates the struggle of a group of agricultural workers who were sent to Australia as punishment for forming a trade union in the early 19th Century. Such was the strength of support for the men, organised by their wives who were left behind and by activists across the UK, the government had to bring them home to reunite them with their families. Like the big meeting in Durham, the Tolpuddle festival celebrates the real "big society" - the self-organisation of ordinary people to advance their interests and ensure the strong protect the weak.

Facing years of austerity and the scars of unemployment, if the people gathering this weekend in Durham and Dorset consider political issues it will be these economic concerns rather than political reforms or the infighting of the Tory-led government. But in the past, more democracy has meant more opportunities for correcting injustices and building a good society.

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