Labour has done more to change the way Britain is governed than any government since 1911. It has delivered devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and introduced a form of PR for European elections. In Scotland in local government a refreshed and renewed local political culture is growing now that STV is used for local elections there. And of course it almost abolished hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
That’s it though – almost! It simply beggars belief that we have unelected legislators in any form, let alone that there are still remaining hereditary peers in the Upper House of our Parliament. t was supposed to be one of the cornerstones of the reforming manifesto of 1997, and in 1999 Tony Blair even evicted all but 92 hereditary peers. But despite the ‘loans for Lordships’ scandal in 2006 and even the disgraceful ‘cash for amendments’ scandal, progress continues to be slow and is highly unlikely to happen before the next election.
Jack Straw at the recent Unlock Democracy and The Guardian seminar said himself:
“Our 1999 reforms dramatically changed the Lords for the better. But this remains unfinished business. The constitutional reform and governance bill, which will receive its second reading in October, sets out our plans to phase out hereditary peers from the second chamber. It is an outdated concept in a society where influence and power should be based on merit rather than on the family into which one is born. The current situation where 90 hereditary peers retained their seats in the Lords was only ever intended as an interim step.
We aim for an elected second chamber which could become wholly elected, but would be substantially so. Our proposals stem from the outcome of free votes on Lords reform which took place in 2007. The House of Commons voted in favour of reforms leading to a 100% or 80% elected second chamber and against all other options.”
Although election systems and retirement packages are areas that need to be worked out, it simply isn’t good enough that we have allowed these to block the process of reform. We need to be bold, we need to push the envelope – after all there are four simple key ideas underpinning the case for Lords Reform:
1 – Party Patronage devalues politics
The perception that people can buy or connive a seat in the legislature has been a source of controversy for over a century. The public perception of politicians is at an all time low – the Lords, though, have paved the way with numerous dodgy and corrupt exploits in the last few years, well before the ‘expenses scandal’ broke.
2 – An unelected House lacks legitimacy
While the House of Lords often does a good job at improving legislation, it is constantly hampered by the fact that it has no claim to be representing the will of the people. The Government constantly cites the Lords’ illegitimacy as a reason for ignoring what it says. An elected second chamber would have more authority. Lord Mandelson may be landing the blows on the policy-lite Cameron media machine and could even be as some argue the most powerful man in Government – but the fact is he has absolutely no democratic legitimacy or accountability.
3 – An elected second chamber would be more representative
Elections would allow for members from smaller parties and independents to sit in the second chamber as working peers. (Or senators, depending on the semantic option we choose).
4 – The public want it
Opinion polls consistently suggest that around two-thirds of the public want a majority or wholly elected second chamber. More than 55% of the public voted for a party committed to an at least substantially elected second chamber in 2005.
Re-building trust in our massively damaged legislative institutions is paramount – Jack Straw and the Labour party must discover that historic reforming zeal. No more fudges, no more compromises, no putting things off to find ‘consensus’ – we need full and radical reform which must be in our manifesto for 2010 – just one year short of an entire century since the 1911 Parliament Act that first laid down the beginnings of Lords reform. We must ‘clear the way’ because our broken democracy cannot wait another four years, let alone another century.