Reform the House of Lords

Conservatives shouldn’t let so-called ‘progressives’ corner the market when it comes to constitutional reform.

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The House of Lords as we currently know it
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Will James
On 9 May 2011 10:15

These are troubling times for Britain’s Coalition government. Following the disastrous election results for the Liberal Democrats last week, David Cameron is expected to throw his junior partner big concessions, such as reforming the House of Lords. With the economy dominating proceedings, most observers had expected Lords reform to be quietly forgotten by the next election. However, plummeting poll numbers, the massacre of Lib Dem councillors and the overwhelming rejection of the AV have changed those assumptions. Without electoral reform Clegg will settle for completing the job started by Lloyd George in 1911.

This has had constitutional purists spluttering into their cornflakes (see here, here, here and here). However, setting the terms of the coming debate over Lords reform as a battle between left-wing progressives and right-wing reactionaries would be a short-sighted approach from the Conservative-wing of the Coalition. It needn’t be another Cameroonian sop to appease Lib Dem jitters. Instead, it should be an opportunity to complete much overdue reforms of a system that no longer serves the best interests of the British people.

For conservatives, the pace of change in politics is determined by an evolutionary – not revolutionary – tempo. Rather than rushing into transformational exercises, the conservative temperament is to reflect and slowly digest change incrementally. However, no-one could accuse proponents of Lords reform of rushing into anything. Every government in the last century has attempted to make changes to the Lords, but no-one has ever completed them satisfactorily. The last big push, in 1997, saw Tony Blair’s government cull the upper chamber of all but 92 of its hereditary peers.

Unfortunately, however, progress since then has given way to stagnation. Quite simply, reforming the upper chamber is an idea whose time has come, and Conservatives would be mad to allow Clegg to make all the running on constitutional changes of such magnitude. Instead, they need to get into the arena and map out effective and Conservative proposals for forcing the final stage in the evolution of the Lords from illegitimate hotchpotch into something fitting for a modern democracy:

1. Membership

Two of the strongest arguments against an elected Lords are a) it would remove from the chamber assorted experts who would otherwise not run for office, and b) it would rival the primacy of the Commons as the nation’s ‘cockpit of democracy’. However, the oft mooted compromise of an 80 percent elected, 20 percent appointed chamber would kill both these constitutional conundrums with one stone. By being predominantly elected the Lords would achieve a sense of democratic authority it currently lacks, making its membership vastly more accountable and end the double-standard when Britain promotes democracy abroad, only to practice something quite different at home.

By retaining 20 percent membership for appointed peers, the chamber would not only retain the wisdom of experts that makes the Lords a much valued addition to our constitution, but their presence would also act as a mechanism preventing their Lordships from hawking supremacy over the Commons. Appointed peers would simultaneously be respected ‘philosopher-kings’ as well as the chamber’s undemocratic Achilles’ heel. No-one would ever be able to claim that a body with unelected members could rival one which was wholly elected, and we would still be able to retain the knowledge and experience of ex-military chiefs, scientists, judges, ex-Cabinet Secretaries and others in the legislative process.

2. Nominations

Reforming the Lords would end the unpleasant aspects of the current system. Peers, mostly, would be judged on their policies and merits in an election – rather than gain membership through their hereditary blood-group or backroom deal-making. Elected peers won’t be angels, but at least they’ll have gone through the scrutiny of the ballot box.

As for the appointed 20 percent their selection should be made by an independent commission – a sort of constitutional Office of Budget Responsibility – that takes the appointment system out of the hands of political parties, and ends the ‘jobs-for-the-boys’ culture that pervades the present Lords. If party leaders want to nominate people that’s fine – who would deny that people such as Michael Howard, Andrew Adonis or Shirley Williams don’t add great value to the quality of the upper chamber – but they’d have to demonstrate that value, rather than gain it automatically through a Prime Minister’s patronage.

3. Bipartisanship

Another grave warning against an elected chamber is that it would destroy the collegiate spirit of the current system. Rather than respectful deference, Lords debates would become much like the snarling, unedifying spectacles often witnessed in the Commons, with party political attacks and crass populism a par for the course. However, with a number of safeguards this could be largely avoided. The US Senate has a reputation for bipartisanship and measured discourse, in contrast with the House of Representatives. A similar atmosphere would be achievable in the UK with single, long (perhaps 10-15 year) terms of office, allowing a more dispassionate view of political decisions. What with the recent criticismof a new ‘ya-boo’ attitude in the Lords, things could scarcely be worse under a democratic system.

4. Electoral System

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of reform for Conservatives will be proposals that any elections to the upper chamber are based on proportional representation. Having fought to retain first-past-the-post for the Commons, Tory activists are unlikely to enjoy the prospect of PR in the Lords. However, while the Coalition Agreement ties the government to PR, this doesn’t mean that a full blown Single-Transferable Vote system is inevitable. PR comes in many different shades, and Conservatives would be wise to start laying the ground-work for a compromise on one of the various different options available to them. Most preferable would be a regional-based Party List system, (but with open – not closed – candidate selection, to increase the independence of members). A debate also needs to be had over whether to set a minimum threshold for parties to win seats.

Benjamin Disraeli described himself as “a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad.” When it comes to Lords reform, I couldn’t put it better myself!

Will James is a freelance writer and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @wmhjames

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