This blogpost is in conjunction with the Elect The Lords campaign, who recently made a Pledgebank appeal to blog about Lords reform, which I signed. More are available via Technorati tag electthelords, and the New Politics blog.
The House of Lords – it’s a messy business, isn’t it? While most of the other dusty relics of English history have long been swept away or turned into purely ceremonial, the Lords, and the question of reform still hangs around our neck. It has been since August 10th, 1911, when the first Parliament Act, which said in its preamble:
…whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.
Ninety-four years later, we’re still here! Well, not quite, we have only had life peers since 1958, but in terms of democracy, being in the upper chamber because you were the Prime Minister’s old flatmate isn’t much fairer than being there because your great-great-great-grandad was a mate of the King. And remember – that job is for life, no matter how naughty you are. Honestly, I don’t know how people from outside the UK don’t gasp in disbelief when they hear we appoint our politicians for life (only Lesotho does the same).
Of course, the traditionalist point of view is that the Lords may not be democratic, but at least it’s totally subservient to the elected Commons. True, but the only reason it has been made subservient is because it was the only way of justifying its continued undemocratic existence. What we end up is the worst of both worlds – a toothless body stuffed with retired MPs, cronies and other hangers-on, which rarely has the will nor the power to fully scrutinise and review the laws passed by the Commons, no matter how bad (in the current political climate there’s been a rash of those of late, with the odd honourable exception).
The problem is, that any time we want to discuss the role of the Lords, the same obstacles of democratic unaccountability appear. We need to get rid of these – the first step to a more democratic Lords is to elect a majority of its members; only then will it have the legitimacy possible for its role and powers and its relationship with the Commons to be discussed. Sadly, Labour have promised plenty but done little, apart from reducing the number of hereditary peers (ironically, this has meant the remaining hereditaries are the only ones who had to go through any sort of vote to get there). The best we have out of the government at the moment is a plan to drip-feed elected members in (presumably as the current life peers die off), first at 20%, then 40%, etc. all the way up to 80%. The kicker is, that the Commons get to stop the process at any stage if they feel the new Second Chamber gets too uppity.
I don’t care either for Billy Bragg’s proposals for a secondary mandate, i.e. it’s filled according the proportion of the national vote each party got at the general election. For starters, it means the Lords is filled at the same time as the Commons, when I believe we should borrow a good idea from the Yanks and have half of the chamber elected in mid-term elections, to better cater for the variable and cyclical political mood. It also means that there’s no chance for any independents to join the Lords; in fact there seems to be no catering at all for cross-benchers or expert appointees, who I still think have an important role to play (more on that later). Most importantly, it’s too fucking chicken: it’s saying that proportional representation is fine only for the Lords, and we can bolt it onto the faulty electoral system we have for the Commons and it will solve all our problems. Wrong, it doesn’t. Both the Commons and the Lords should be elected according to a fairer voting system.
Instead, I am broadly in agreement with the ideas instead espoused in the proposed Second Chamber of Parliament Bill that a cross-party group of MPs (including the late, lamented Robin Cook) drew up last year (full text here [warning, enormous PDF]). It calls for a directly-elected 70% of the upper chamber, with the remaining 30% crossbenchers appointed for their expertise (roughly the same as the 27% of independent peers now), which is good. I don’t agree at the length of term they propose (12-14 years is a bit too long, I’d let them have 8 tops, and preferably the same terms as MPs), and they pussyfoot around dropping the bishops (let them all go, I say), but the right ideas are in place – there is a clear majority of directly-elected members, but still bears in mind the Lords’ function as a body to scrutinise and inspect legislation, so those from outside politics have an important role to play.
The one thing I really do disagree with is the gradualist approach the bill’s authors take – phasing in the new Lords over a three-term period. I think we should just stick them all in straight away though, with none of the softly-softly business we’ve been having of late. Labour’s been in power for eight years now having promised reform and the gradualist approach is getting us nowhere. I worry that, having to wait for it to go through over 12 years, there’s plenty of time to botch it up. But, the bill’s written by MPs and they’re going to know what it takes to get a controversial bill through Parliament and the concessions you have to make, so I’m willing to compromise even on that, which is why I give the Bill (or any similar measure) my full support. If you feel the same, then why not register as a supporter of Elect The Lords? while you’re at it, write to your MP – after all, if the members of the Commons don’t know people care about an issue, they’re not going to pay much attention themselves. We’ve been waiting too long for change as it is – don’t let them get away with making you wait any longer.