Let’s reform the House of Lords – but not Nick Clegg’s way

7th May, 2012 1:30 pm

Like most democrats, I strongly favour a wholly elected House of Lords, but the government’s draft Bill for Lords reform and the parliamentary joint committee’s report on it, now published, make a terrible mess of the job on almost every count.

First, there’s no need for us to re-invent the wheel. Other western democracies have serviceable legislatures in which both chambers are wholly elected: we should not be so insular and arrogant that we can’t learn anything from them. For example, both the government’s Bill and the joint committee’s report are obsessed by the far-fetched fear that an elected second chamber will challenge the “primacy of the Commons” – far-fetched, because the Commons’ primacy is guaranteed by its role as the creator and home of governments, by the tight limits on the powers of the second chamber and by the provision that in the event of conflict between the two Houses, the Commons will always prevail.

Both Bill and report advocate reserving up to 20% of the seats in the reformed chamber for appointed members, mainly (they argue) because of the need to preserve the supposed pool of expertise residing in the present membership of the House of Lords. But why should an eminent ex-gynaecologist have anything special to contribute to a debate on Trident, and how would a gallant retired Admiral contribute special expertise to a debate on abortion? A reformed second chamber should have easy access to specialised expertise as and when it needs it, subject by subject. Experts don’t have to be members of either house of parliament, unless they have fought and won an election to it. (And what on earth, or elsewhere, is the special expertise that the bishops are supposed to possess and contribute?)

Both Bill and report are self-evidently wrong to propose that:

  • a reformed House of Lords should have between 300 and 400 members (far too many),
  • there should still be a cohort of ex-officio Church of England bishops in it (an insult to Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, flat-earthers, Seventh-Day Adventists and a few million unbelievers), and that
  • its members should be elected for 15 year terms (far too long. Five years would be ample. It’s not meant to be a retirement home any more).

We need more long-term, out-of-the-box thinking on this. As the UK is now, since devolution, a semi-federation, the second chamber needs to be a federal-type Senate on (for example) the American and Australian models, with equal numbers elected from each of the four UK nations — e.g. 20 each, giving us a total of 80 Senators, just a tenth of the size of the present House of Lords. The US, with five times the UK’s population, manages quite well with 100 Senators. Equal representation for the four UK nations would provide a much-needed safeguard against constant bullying and interference by much bigger England in the internal affairs of the three smaller members of our semi-federation. Without the prospect of safeguards like this, Scotland will sooner or later exit from the Union and the UK will disintegrate, causing incalculable damage to the interests of all its peoples. Anyway, as a brave minority of the joint committee has pointed out, it’s ridiculously premature to try to design a new second chamber of the UK parliament before we know whether the Scots are going to vote in the autumn of 2014 to secede from the UK.

Any reform as radical as this, affecting the very structure and perhaps functions of the central legislature, will obviously need to be submitted to a referendum. If so I suppose I’ll vote Yes even if the changes proposed are woefully inadequate, as they clearly will be. But it looks as if there’s going to be a great row over the question of a referendum on Lords reform, with the Europhobe right already advancing the novel proposition that if there’s a referendum on House of Lords reform, there should jolly well be a referendum on UK membership of the EU too. That will put the wind far up the LibDems, and others. So probably the whole thing will soon be gridlocked and indefinitely shelved (again).

What a pity that we don’t have a bold, reformist, left-of-centre party willing to argue for real change – no UK nuclear deterrent with no-one to deter, no aircraft carriers for ill-conceived foreign adventures, whole-hearted participation in the European enterprise, willingness to make the case for increased, not reduced, public spending to revive demand in the economy and speed growth and recovery, a determined attack on gross inequality, a much bigger contribution to the national finances from the obscenely rich than from the hard-pressed poor, legalisation and control of hard drugs, restoration of local government control of state education and a review of the public schools’ charity status, re-nationalisation of the NHS and of the state-rescued banks, a bonfire of New Labour’s most illiberal legislation, a carefully managed move towards an eventual fully federal UK with a parliament and government for England… Oh, and a wholly elected, democratic, small and effective, federal-style second chamber of the legislature of the United Kingdom.

Some hope!

A longer version of this post appears here.

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