Nine years on and still we wait for a timid reform of the House of Lords

 by Martin Belam, 24 October 2006
The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.

The system of appointment of life peers to the House of Lords will be reviewed. Our objective will be to ensure that over time party appointees as life peers more accurately reflect the proportion of votes cast at the previous general election. We are committed to maintaining an independent cross-bench presence of life peers. No one political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords.

A committee of both Houses of Parliament will be appointed to undertake a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then to bring forward proposals for reform.

We have no plans to replace the monarchy.

Those were the words of the Labour Party manifesto in 1997 about the prospect of reform of the UK's unelected House of Lords. Nine years on, and this weekend the press back at home was buzzing with a leaked document that suggested some possible ways ahead for the reform.

Nine years later.

Nine years!

And in that time Labour have managed to waste away two full parliaments with a large majority, and most of the goodwill they ever had with the 45 minute issue, the Iraq war, and the cash for peerages scandal.

Looking at the suggestions coming out for this belated effort to get the reform sorted out, it doesn't look like the country is any nearer getting an effective democratic second chamber.

The leaked discussion paper looks at three possibilities for a second chamber - all appointed, all elected, or a mix of both. The arguments put forward for not allowing an all elected chamber make for some depressing reading.

First of all, the Government position seems to be that as political parties can't be trusted to nominate candidate lists that are balanced in terms of ethnicity and gender, a committee of "the great and the good" will be better placed to ensure the right mix in the house than democratic process.

A fully elected House would prove difficult to ensure representation of non-political Crossbench members, as the political parties are more likely to dominate any election process....It would be difficult to ensure that the principles of representation of the racial and gender mix of the UK and the representation of religious opinion were met, unless strict rules were in place when individuals stand for election

This, of course, neatly sidesteps the thought that if you had true proportional representation, and national lists with a low enough barrier to entry, instead of having a second chamber stuffed full of the white middle class men usually nominated for political office by the established parties, you could actually get a balanced chamber reflecting the diverse political spectrum in the UK not currently catered for in mainstream politics.

And yes, it probably means you would have to accept the presence of representatives of the BNP and UKIP in a reformed chamber, but equally you would see a flourishing of representation for grass-roots movements like the Green party, and a pensioners party, and parties representing ethnic minorities, and so on.

The real thrust of denying the UK population the chance to vote for their second house of parliament seems to be the fear that a democratic House of Lords would eclipse the House of Commons.

A fully elected House would become more political than the current House, which would be detrimental to the effectiveness and to the respect in which it is held

The leaked document goes on to assert that:

it is highly probable that in the UK context a wholly elected chamber would become so assertive of its role in practice to challenge the powers of the Commons, to overlap with the latter's functions. We have already seen how the reforms introduced since 1997 have led to increased activity by members in the Lords, and an increasing readiness to vote down government porposals

I can't in all honesty buy the argument that the Lords have become more rebellious because of the reforms of 1997. The rebellions have generally been because the Government were trying to abolish some of the members of the House of Lords itself, were trying to abolish blood sports which were more likely to be supported in the upper house because of the demographics of the current membership, or were trying to push through ill-conceived anti-terrorist legislation overthrowing centuries of UK civil liberty tradition. All of which seem to me to be reasonable circumstance for a second chamber to wish to exercise their powers.

The upshot is that the country is liable to end up with a hybrid model. This will allow the existing political parties to battle it out for half the seats, and then have another half appointed in order to make up the gender and race balance that they themselves don't represent. And all done in such a way that the second house can't actually make any impact on the white male middle class will of the House of Commons.

As the leaked document itself says:

Reform of the House of Lords must therefore ensure that it is effective, legitimate and more representative in a way that it enhances public engagement with the parliamentary process, without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons

In other words, women and ethnic minorites will get some token appointed representation in the upper house, and we House of Commons politicians can just carry on as normal.

I think I almost prefer the old hereditary principle rather than the appointments principle - at least it was obvious what was going on, and the membership of the house was dictated by the grim reaper rather than a Government appointed quango.

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