Why Miliband’s plans to scrap the Lords should be welcomed

1st November, 2014 9:33 am

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Ed Miliband’s announcement of plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate is welcome on two counts.

Firstly, it’s good to see Labour committing once again to reforming the House of Lords after ducking the issue for reasons of low politics earlier in the parliament. Choosing to drive a wedge between the Lib Dems and the Tories on constitutional affairs may well have reaped dividends (not least, the abandonment of the gerrymandering bill), but it was sad to see Labour – a party that has supported Lords reform for most of its existence – miss out on a chance to change this farcical branch of our government.

And this week, in which we’ve seen some of the worst of the Lords – the “election” of a new hereditary peer – it’s surely as good a time as any to say goodbye to this living, breathing anachronism, replete as it is with the remnants of feudal power and stuffed to the gills with the recipients of patronage and (in some cases) the outright hangers-on. We’ve even had the strange sight – to say the least – of Tony Benn’s eldest son joining the queue to become a hereditary peer, when one of his father’s finest achievements was pulling himself clear of the second chamber. The mind boggles.

Of course there are those in the Lords who provide a strong scrutiny function, and sometimes amends bills in a way that improves them, but if you believe that having unelected legislators altering our laws is preferable to elected representatives, then you might want to go away and have a think about whether or not you’re actually a democrat.

Secondly, this is a proposal that could provide a powerful slash at the Gordian knot of our political time – how a British government and a British state exists in tandem with devolved assemblies, in a nation that has lost faith with its politicians. By explicitly designing an assembly that represents the nations and regions, Miliband is offering a second chamber that is fundamentally different to the Commons, whilst taking on the Westminster/London hegemony at the heart of our politics. What must be done next is to ensure that this isn’t just a retirement homes for ex-MPs and the regional great and good. But by pushing his reforms through a constitutional convention, it will be the people who will decide.

Of course Miliband’s plan is far from a panacea, and has many tricky hurdles to cross. Electoral reform is a means, not an end, to political change. Trust in politics and politicians is at absolute rock bottom – so this must be about having fewer and better politicians, not another expensive layer of government – and this must be thought of as a real people’s chamber, that the people of Britain could genuinely see themselves represented in.

This isn’t my preferred option for changing our constitutional settlement ( I’d rather take as much power, money and time as possible away from Westminster – and turn MPs into elected representatives of regional assemblies, and I suspect long-term First Past The Post for the Commons is unsustainable) but this is certainly a plan that comes from the right place – spreading power and influence out across the country, rather than hoarding it in SW1. And for that it should be welcomed.

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  • FMcGonigal

    Yes – an elected second chamber. Now let us see the detail – how ill senators be elected and how long will they serve?

    • We actually need to see the detail first before we can say the plan’s acceptable or not. Most Lords reform plans, like Nick Clegg’s, are nonsense.

      The powers of this senate, the timing of elections, the electoral system and the terms on which members of this senate would serve are all critical. Ed should be able to give us this detail now. If not, then the proposal wasn’t and isn’t ready to be made.

  • monty61

    Let me see .. on the one hand Milliband wants a constitutional convention so that the detail of the UK constitution can be worked out sensibly and sanely and hopefully on a consensus basis … on the other hand he unilaterally announces a Senate with a vague remit and no detail. Does he even read his own speeches?

    What an idiot this guy is. And those round about him.

    And tell me again what this solves about Britain’s real problems (viz. the deficit and the wider economy, the NHS, child poverty, community fragmentation in response to immigration.

    Utter waste of space.

    • treborc1

      Labour cannot do much to help poverty or in fact make lives better for people, they have no idea for education other then the Tories might be right or not depending which ever day of the week it is.

      Saving the NHS has gone down like a lead balloon with nobody really trusting that one.

      So the next fall back for labour is the House of lords big in 1997 with New labour but also with every labour government since the 1970’s .

      People are struggling to live really struggling to live, it’s bloody austerity the people wanted sorted has labour any ideas on that, well yes really we do, if we can cut welfare and wages we will have money for the rich and like Disraeli we will have a trickle down effect. or not….

    • Exactly right. The irony is that the more strongly someone calls for a constitutional convention so that “the people” can decide something, the more likely it is that he or she has a very clear idea of what “the people” must want. This announcement is a direct contradiction of Ed’s last shallow constitutional wheeze, which he announced only in September.

    • PATRICKNEWMAN

      So is it Miliband or the House of Lords that is the real target of this contribution. People have cried out for bold policies and when one appears it is knocked for inconsistency. Good riddance to the HoL which also contains the CoE and which pollutes our democracy and is a ‘long stop’ for the Tories when they are out of power.

    • Rangjan

      I don’t see a contradiction between calling for a constitutional convention and pointing out that the House of Lords is overdue for reform, or even suggesting alternatives. Normally these types of speeches are seen as complementary.

      Then again, I believe that the House of Lords should be replaced by a smaller, elected upper chamber (or something similar as determined by a constitutional convention, as part of an overall constitutional review that will be put to the electorate in a referendum). Perhaps your issue is that you don’t, or that you want to troll Miliband?

    • Guest

      Yes, your post is. You could have blamed the Other in one line.

  • Hamish Dewar

    Why is it assumed that the only form of democratic selection is by election?
    Choosing representatives by lot from those willing to serve is equally democratic and filters out the career politicians.

    • Duncan Hall

      How is that democratic? It is “fair”. The two words are not synonymous.

      • Good point. Random selection isn’t democratic, I agree.

        Now, how is Ed proposing to select “ordinary people” to serve on his constitutional convention?

  • Kieran Cowan

    Fail to see the purpose of the upper house; we should be like countries such as those in Scandinavia where they use common sense and make their already elected representatives do the job of scrutinosation in committees. Maybe needed to go a little further than that.

    • Good point. I think we can reform the Lords properly, but it’d probably take a long, step by step, careful and well thought through process. That’s what I’d like. But straight abolition of the second chamber is a better idea than many of the daft plans people come up with.

    • Guest

      “Common sense”.

      Yea…no. I’d prefer checks and balances, thanks. Politicians are too dangerous to trust without them, and you’d in that system reinforce the neoliberal political consensus here.

      • Kieran Cowan

        And you’d expect more politicians, hand picked by the government (or, if democratic, hand picked by political parties) to provide them? That to me sounds like a system that enforces the neo-liberal consensus. Cross party committees, which take analysis for external experts sounds a lot more likely to break any consensus among political parties and governments.

        • Guest

          It’s still retaining the system for later reform.

          We need to reform the commons first, but having only one house does not work in the Westminister system of Parliamentary Sovereignty – we’d need to start by codifying the constitution with all those issues, and..

          • Kieran Cowan

            We need to reform the entire structure of British democracy. Whilst I’m totally not against making it democratic, labour needs to make itself the leader in taking our democracy in the direction of a Nordic one; efficient and truly democratic. Now, that means eventually scrapping the House of Lords, all one with; having a written constitution, reforming the electoral system, balancing devolution to all of the UK (which in my head means regional governments as EVEL is too late due to the fact devo has already started in London) and probably making referendums more prominent in our democracy, e.g. For being in the EU and on going to war to name a few examples

  • An elected second chamber has been the formal policy of the Lib Dems for as long as that party has existed, and of the Conservatives ever since they were able to pack off dear old John Major.

    But it was certainly not Labour Party policy under the actively opposed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Blair used to make the case against it from the Despatch Box, cheered on by his own side and catcalled by the Conservatives.

    Oh, well, somehow that seems to have gone by the by.

    But if two parties with quite such a level of commitment to it, and very few of today’s Conservative MPs were in Parliament before that became their party’s policy as long ago as the summer of 1997, then its likelihood under Labour is decidedly remote.

  • I don’t welcome this. It makes me despair. I don’t say this lightly, but I’m beginning to wonder if Ed deserves my vote.

    I’m not dead against the idea of an elected Lords. That could be a good idea. But there’s a reason why Lords reform is hard, and the reason is that it’s hard to come up with something that commands wide support and replicates the strengths of the current Lords, and that does not cause confusion, or merely replicate the worst features of the Commons. It’s easy to get Lords reform plans badly wrong, in other words. As Nick Clegg did.

    The powers of this senate, the electoral system, when elections happen, the term of a member and the conditions of membership all matter hugely. You can only say whether the plan is good or awful when you know all those details. It’s superficial just to say you want an elected senate. That could easily end up with more “Westminster politicians”, gridlock, and even more remoteness from voters.

    I’m depressed because this is cynical. Ed is nakedly trying to appeal to former LibDem voters here, and to distract from his problem on English votes. It’s also directly in contradiction with his last cynical antidote to English votes – the constitutional convention, which he announced only a few weeks ago. He can either put forward his own constitutional reform plan, or else leave it to a constitutional convention. He can’t have both. So which is it?

    Finally, I despair because this is all so (in Neil Kinnock’s words) irrelevant to the real needs. Labour needs to be focusing on the economy, the cost of living, housing, wages and equality. If I wanted a party that preferred this constitutional seminar stuff, I’d be a LibDem.

    • monty61

      Great summary of the various problems with this. And totally agree that finding a party that deserves voting for is rather hard right now.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    It’s a distraction from voting reform for the Commons, and hence is afaik harmful.

    The Lords has been been described as “ineffective”, and it would remain so under these plans (since there’s no plan to give them sweeping new powers). I want meaningful change.

  • Monkey_Bach

    If the House of Lords is ever replaced by another institution can we please make it a rule that former Members of Parliament are forbidden to stand to be elected (or appointed or whatever) to become members of this new institution and that attendance of elected/appointed members of the new institution is compulsory with expulsion as a penalty for those neglectful of their duties as lawmakers.

    Eeek.

    • Actually the key would be to ban members of the “senate” from ever standing for the Commons. That’d stop it being a staging post for wannabes, which I think is the main risk.

  • casual agent

    Long overdue in my opinion ‘About time these freeloaders’ relied on their own Too Generous Pensions without ripping off the people by claiming £300.00 a day for doing f all .

  • Anniesec

    I hope we can all use this opportunity – through discussion, not a decree from the top, to make this new body representative in other ways, not just in recognising the needs of regions and nations. I would want to see a built in gender balance with quotas for younger representatives, term limits and a reasonable retiring age. Nomination mechanisms could ensure a wide variety of faiths and interests are represented.

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