If Labour has a sense of triumphalism or schadenfreude at the withdrawal of the programme motion on the House of Lords Reform Bill it is misplaced. Yet again, parliamentary manoeuvring is jeopardising the curtailing and limitation of the principle of appointment without election in Parliament. Labour has effectively joined forces with those who wish to reject election for representatives of the upper house. A shame – more so because the arguments these conservatives are deploying are so weak. I’m not going to go into detail on the arguments for change when Kevin Meagher, Mark Ferguson and Alan Johnson have done so very effectively elsewhere. The proposal is actually quite basic in principle: to move from an appointed-hereditary house to largely elected one with a fifth appointed. That’s it – that’s the choice.
For Labour, you’d think this was a no brainer – the people’s party would go for election over appointment. For others, you’d think the proposals involved swapping the Queen for an armadillo given some of the melodramatic reaction in the House of Commons yesterday. The most amusing thing about the debate so far has been the way in which opponents have unwittingly argued the case against the current House of Lords rather more than the alternative! Here are just a few examples:
“The proposed fifteen year term is too long.”
That may well be so and I have some sympathy with this line. But if fifteen years is too long then why is an unlimited term as is currently the case not? Not a good start for status-quoists.
“The new elected peers won’t have to seek re-election so this will damage accountability.”
Again, I have some sympathy with this argument. I would prefer a shorter term with re-election. But from opponents of reform, this argument is beyond parody. How often do the current crop of appointees, inheritors to title and bishops have to seek re-election? Try ‘never’ as an answer and you’ll be pretty close. The bogus arguments continue.
“The proposed electoral system – a regional open party list – encourages cronyism.”
*cough* *splutter* – What on earth is the current House of Lords appointments system about? Now, I don’t want to get personal by naming names and identifying political patronage and reward for financial contribution but cronyism is in the main an argument against the status quo not change. For what it’s worth, it would make sense for the parties to give some guidance on how they would select their candidates for 2015. Hopefully, it will recognise the genuinely contribution – as legislators – of the best Lords in the present arrangement.
There are a series of other arguments that are, in the main, equally weak but aren’t quite so damaging to the current arrangement – they don’t back-fire to the same degree.
“It will shift balance balance between the two houses.”
This is demonstrably false when it comes to formal powers. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 enshrine the primacy of the House of Commons most explicitly on ‘money’ legislation but also on general legislation. There is no reason at all why this should alter just because the House of Lords is elected. There are many different arrangements of functions and powers with primacy for one house protected in other systems. The Japanese Diet is just one example. The upper house is elected but subordinate. Actually, their arrangement is rather similar to our own in terms of balance of power and function.
On informal powers – ie conventions – it is a slightly more grey area. The key convention is the Salisbury Convention which essentially assures passage of legislation that was contained within a Government’s manifesto. It’s not a law and so it can change – under the current arrangement as well as would be the case with a democratic chamber. Perhaps all three parties should commit to the convention as a principle in their manifestos if they are so concerned about it and perhaps all appointees should be made to commit to it too other than on issues of conscience. There, that would be a stronger convention than currently exists.
“People aren’t interested in it. There are other priorities”
This is an utterly bizarre set of objections. If this test was applied to all legislation that goes through Parliament, we’d probably only pass 20% of what is currently passes. Yes, there are other priorities but there is time for this as well in the legislative programme.
“It costs too much.”
The overall reform package of a reduced House of Commons and the net changes to the House of Lords is cost-neutral. Each election will cost £87.5 million – £17.5million on an annual basis. If you don’t believe in the elected principle then you probably think this is too much. If you do, then you think it’s probably worth the cost.
“The BNP will get in”
Well, we could design our entire political system through fear of the extreme right or we could campaign, organise and confront them whilst designing a good democratic system. The BNP can be stopped as these elections will take place at the same time as the General Election so turnout will be higher diluting their vote. Any election is prone to people voting a way that you don’t like. That’s the way it works and the trick is to dissuade them from doing so.
“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
What exactly would constitute ‘broke’? The argument for change is about preferring democratically elected and accountable legislators to be making, scrutinising and deciding upon legislation to a (mostly) appointed or hereditary upper chamber. If the test is ‘legislation passed by democratically elected representatives’ then the current Lords is broke.
“Reform not change.”
We’ll take the ‘reformers’ at their word and suppose that this argument is not just a smokescreen to show that you are not anti the notion of reform and instead are pragmatically rejecting it based on careful consideration of evidence. I’m feeling generous though a few are genuine in this argument. But then it comes back to the basic issue: a democratically elected house or an appointed one. That is the choice.
“The House of Lords is a fundamental part of our nationhood and tradition.”
Perhaps but that didn’t stop us removing all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999. You will still have a second chamber with the same powers but it will be 80% elected rather than appointed or hereditary. Tradition evolves and introducing the elected principle in one such evolution.
So arguments against reform are largely bad, contradictory and misleading. The proposed reform is not ideal but then no reform would be. Should there be a referendum? Perhaps but there is a problem with these referendums in that there is a bias in favour of the status quo; practical beats the theoretical and real beats the imagined. If Labour has any sense it would level things up – support the reforms now with a commitment to a confirmatory referendum down the line. That way people can compare the old and the new on an equal footing – in the 2020 General Election, say – that is more democratic too.
This debate has become smoke and mirrors. At the end of the day it’s quite simple. Do you want legislation to be passed by people who you elect or do want appointees to do it instead? I’ll go for election over patronage any day. Others may have a different view – let them argue it rather than playing a game of deflect and distort.