The House of Lords is a mess. It brings together in one place party political nominees (often former MPs), acknowledged experts on particular issues, descendants of drinking buddies of long-deceased monarchs, and a smattering of Anglican bishops, to sit in judgement on legislation. We are supposed to think that this is the exercise of democracy.
Little wonder that the Liberal Democrats in government want to change the system. A chamber that is supposed to revise and improve legislation has in fact revised and improved very little. We look back at a series of legislative errors – the Dangerous Dogs Act, all those changes and changes back to the structure of the NHS – not to mention a relentless centralisation of political power in Whitehall and the weakening of the ability of parliament to control the executive. In all this, we ask, what exactly has the House of Lords revised or improved?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, may be a good maxim (or, in the more parliamentary language of Viscount Falkland, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”), but in the case of the House of Lords, it is necessary to change. The second chamber works neither in theory, nor in practice.
This is not to say that all changes to the House of Lords are necessarily for the better. Particularly not when one looks at the proposals put forward by the government. House of Lords reform is a mess, too.
The proposal from the coalition government is for a chamber of 300 members, with 240 elected and 60 appointed to serve for a single term of 15 years. A joint committee of both houses of parliament thinks there should be 450 members, and has suggested various changes to the proposed transitional arrangements.
However, a sub-committee of that joint committee hates the government’s proposals and calls instead for a constitutional convention to think the issue through again. In particular, the rebels are concerned to ensure that the primacy of the House of Commons remains unchallenged, and fears that an elected House of Lords will become too assertive.
Analysts fear that the parliamentary struggle to reform the Lords against all this opposition will consume so much time and eat up so much political capital as to wreck much of the rest of the coalition government’s programme. But the Liberal Democrats, having failed to reform the electoral system for the House of Commons, are determined to press ahead. Their commitment to democratic reform demands it.
But what their commitment to democratic reform does not demand, mind you, is a referendum on the subject. The introduction of AV was put to a referendum – these important and potentially irreversible issues should not be decided by the political class alone. But the latest, equally important, reform of the constitution is something for parliament on its own, even though the promise of a referendum would also rapidly cut through much of the parliamentary squabble.
I think the Liberal Democrats have learned from the experience of the AV referendum that it is easier to get people to vote against change than to vote for it, when the people who are supposed to be in favour of change are also bitterly divided among themselves. There is no obvious and serious injustice that can be traced to the current make-up of the House of Lords (just as there was not in the case of the electoral system), just a long-running and low-level unfairness. Corrosive to our democratic life, yes; fuel for the Yes campaign in a referendum, probably not.
This website’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords can be found here. An indirectly-elected second chamber would satisfy the principle that no-one should hold office in a legislature without being elected to it, it would respect the primacy of the House of Commons, and it would act as a brake on centralisation. But there is zero chance at present of the government dropping its own mistaken proposals in favour of Federal Union’s much better ones.
A constitutional convention that considered all aspects of the legislative process and the machinery of government might have reached a better outcome than the haggling between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. But such a convention was not written into the coalition agreement in May 2010 and will not be written into it now. I think that we will simply limp through the current parliament arguing over this modest and not very well-guided reform – which might or might not make it to ratification – in the hope that a future government and parliament can propose something better. What a mess.