Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lords reform: What is to be done?

Lords reform is back in the news again. Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats all recently sent a slew of new peers into the upper house, of which the majority were party donors. Today I want to discuss Lords reform, and hopefully present a new idea for a system that is democratic, representative, and can still draw on the experience of the Life Peers, while avoiding bitter party politicking.

The House of Lords is a peculiar institution in the modern world. No other Western democracy has an upper house that is entirely unelected. Of the European democracies, only Italy has a tradition of appointing “senators for life”, and even then, there are only two senators for life compared to the other 315 elected senators. And as its detractors like to point out, the House of Lords is one of only two upper houses that allow clerics seats and input on policy making (the other is that of the Islamic Republic of Iran).

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and now even the Conservatives are fond of portraying themselves as proponents of Lords reform, though the debate is now stuck in something of a rut. All three parties are fond of the appointments system that allows them to award party loyalty by making their elder statesmen Life Peers. Equally, however, the Liberal Democrats know that an upper house elected with a proportional voting system would dramatically increase their representation in Parliament (this was, at least, true a few years ago. Whether this remains true with Nick Clegg’s decision to join with the Tories is another matter). The main sticking points in the debate are what percentages of elected and appointed members the new House of Lords would hold. Some want the House to be entirely elected; others want it to be a fifty-fifty split. Still others favour something in between.

I’ll make it clear now: I don’t want an elected House of Lords, or at least an elected House of Lords that in any way resembles Nick Clegg’s vision for it. We all know why the three main parties now support Lords reform: so they can appear to be progressive and pro-democracy, while actively seeking a second chamber of career politicians in which they can play their party games. Having seen the state of the House of Commons, I think we can all agree that another chamber dominated by the party system is the last thing the United Kingdom needs. Fortunately, the Conservative backbench is particularly intractable when it comes to Lords reform, and so for now at least, we can reasonably expect that any Commissions set up to make inquiries into Lords reform will produce only those: inquiries.

I believe that the current House of Lords, while not ideal, is a great institution. The removal of the hereditary peers was long overdue. Prior to 1999, the Conservatives were known to win votes in the Lords by bringing in huge numbers of hereditary peers. These “backwoodsmen”, many of them quite infirm, otherwise never attended Lords debates. The Life Peers now form a majority in the Lords, and they are generally composed of professionals and experts in fields such as business, the arts, defence, or the sciences, and were ennobled for these achievements. Entrepreneur and businessman Alan Sugar, for instance, currently sits as a Life Peer, while retired Chiefs of the Defence Staff have traditionally been ennobled following retirement.

The post-1999 reformed House of Lords has also shown a great willingness to flex its muscles against the House of Commons. Even though many peers align themselves to parties, the whipping system has been noted to be much weaker in the House of Lords. The Lords successfully blocked or amended legislation such as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Terrorism Act 2006, the Identity Cards Act 2006, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, showing that the House of Lords has a vital role to play in the defence of rights, which have been under sustained attack by elected politicians in the post-9/11 age.

As I pointed out earlier, the current House of Lords is far from ideal. The two sticking points most people have with the Lords revolve around the continued presence of the ninety-two hereditary peers and the Bishops of the Church of England. However, I do not see these as entirely insurmountable issues. The current hereditary peers were permitted to keep their seats in the Lords on the basis of the distinguished period of service they had made in the Lords prior to reform, and thus are extremely well-informed in the procedures of the upper house and in statecraft itself. The Bishops represent the Church of England in the Lords, and the Established Church is a vital part of the British identity even if we do not always realise it. Therefore, I am prepared to accept the continued presence of the hereditary peers and Bishops, and will only support their removal if it can be shown that through their votes, they were able block popular or necessary legislation.

What makes the political class’ current obsession with Lords reform so peculiar is that the British public does not consider it a particularly important issue. Though constitutional reform is a subject the middle classes will chatter their teeth dull about, according to a June 2012 poll by YouGov, only 18% of people said it was vital to reform the Lords and that it should be a priority. 52% of people said that while it was good idea, it should not be a priority at the moment given Britain’s other problems. However, within the Westminster Bubble the wheels are turning, therefore it is our duty to present an alternative solution to Lords reform, lest we allow ourselves to sleepwalk into accepting a second elected chamber that is nothing more than another playing field for party games, filled with second-rate hacks who aren’t good enough for the House of Commons.

The solution, as I see it, is to establish a House of Lords that is half-elected and half-appointed, with the elected half being elected using a system that is majoritarian, local, and most importantly, entirely non-partisan. When elections come for these seats in the Lords, no party will be permitted to field candidates. Candidates could be anyone who lives in that constituency, and they will campaign entirely on their own merits. While they will be able to accept donations, the money can only be from those in their constituency, removing the influence of powerful interests in elections. These new members of the Lords will be elected using a majoritarian electoral system such as the supplementary or alternative vote to ensure general support in their constituencies.

These new members of the House of Lords will therefore represent the local interest of their constituencies in Parliament, unlike the House of Commons that, despite the theory, represents the national interest (when it does not represent the party interest). The other half of the Lords will remain appointed using the current system to provide a base upon which majorities in the Lords can be built, but to build these majorities will require the careful engagement of the elected members, who will in turn look back to their constituencies, thus ensuring the creation of a national consensus that please the majority of the people, not just political parties.

Therefore, through this compromise system we can create a reformed House of Lords that is democratic, representative, and can still draw on the experience of the Life Peers, while avoiding the politicking of the House of Commons.

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