By Pam Giddy
13 years ago Labour swept to power promising “New Labour, New Britain”. Transformation of our constitution was a major plank of the commitments undertaken, and while devolution, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act have changed the UK forever, we still feel far from the democratic and accountable House of Lords we were promised.
Defenders of the status quo claim that, despite its rag tag composition, the House of Lords is an important check on the executive and seems to see higher quality debate than the Commons. But calling for a democratic and accountable Lords in no way runs contrary to the logic of checks and balances – it simply asks that lawmakers themselves be checked and balanced with real public accountability.
Likewise, when the public clearly yearn for the presence of people with real world experience in Parliament the problem is clearly not that democracy and expertise are incompatible. We simply need to be imaginative in creating the process by which one would be elected to the Lords, so it doesn’t replicate or compete with its noisy neighbour down the corridor.
While we debate pros and cons, let’s not forget the scandals that have spewed out from the Lords these recent years – cash for questions, cash for honours, the outrage of non-dom donors buying our politics from its benches, and most recently the “cash for influence” affair. Let’s not forget the indignation we all felt as John Butterfill confidently boasted “It is quite likely that I will go to the Lords…another string to my bow as far as you’re concerned”.
That’s why we at Power2010, together with LabourList and Progress among others are laying down the gauntlet – No more Lords! The Labour government has an incredible opportunity to prove itself as a party of democratic renewal in the wake of these Lordly scandals and in the political landscape still framed by the expenses crisis.
As the dissolution of parliament approaches all three main parties will be readying themselves to send in their next wave of appointments. If the Labour leadership really believes in a democratic House of Lords, should it not decide today that there will be no additional appointment to the upper chamber?
The Labour Party should take a stand and prove its credibility by issuing a challenge to the Conservatives and Lib Dems – “we won’t if you won’t”. No party can be taken seriously on a “democratic House of Lords” while continuing to stuff it full of new appointments, and the first party to rise to this challenge would send a clear message to the public – the days of the rotten parliament are over and we are the party to change things for good. As Alex Smith wrote, Lords reform goes to the heart of Labour’s story. 100 years ago, in 1910, the party ran a simple campaign, “The Lords Must Go” – it’s time to win it.
Some feel that given the challenges we face as a country – the economy, the environment, public services – tinkering with the second chamber is way down the list. But these people forget the equally damaging crisis we face today – a crisis in our politics which threatens to challenge the legitimacy of our democracy. Reforming the Lords, starting with a moratorium on further appointments would sent a strong message to all voters – that the Labour Party believe in action and not just words when in comes to political reform and rebuilding trust. No more Lords.