Lords Reform – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Nick Clegg announced details of the proposed reforms for the House Of Lords yesterday (so I suppose this post, like the Lords, is a bit behind the times). It’s an interesting mix of proposals, some good, some bad, which has given me food for thought about my views on reform of the upper chamber.

The obvious positive is proportional representation, with elections using the Single Transferable Vote. Clearly a coup, given our continued support for such a system. You would hope that it would also be a big stepping stone for getting electoral reform for the Commons back on the agenda.

On the other hand, i’m surprised to find myself considering the 80%-elected, 20% appointed (Bishops, aside) composition as a not particularly bad proposal. I do like the concept of having people appointed for their expertise, which, all things being equal, should allow for more informed revision.

Of course the key part of that is; who makes the appointments. The ‘expertise’ argument is already used to the current Lords. However it seems at times that the main expertise that is abundant in there is that of simply being a politician and/or having money. An independent body to make such appointments seems like a good idea, but how such a thing would work in practice is a whole other debate.

And the bad? The proposed 15 year non-renewable terms doesn’t particularly appeal, although I recognise this is really a case of realpolitik of what we can get past the Tories and Labour. It certainly doesn’t give an air of democratic accountability, although that of course has to be measured against what we currently have. Though electing in thirds does go some way in mitigation, 15 years is a long time in politics, and there will be a significant lag in the public opinion of the time, compared to that of when they were originally elected.

However the biggest issue for me is that there doesn’t seem to have been any consideration of specific powers for each chamber, under the new dynamic. The proposal seems to be that the status quo, with the Lords remaining as a revising chamber, will continue. For me, this represents a form of democratic deficit.

There is certainly an argument to be made that an upper chamber elected (even if not 100%) through proportional representation has as much, if not more, legitimacy, than the lower chamber elected under FPTP. Under those circumstances, is the status quo sustainable? I’m perfectly happy to accept the primacy of the Commons, but I would argue that wider legislative powers should be granted to a reformed Lords.

Of course, you could simply argue that the Commons could simply say to a reformed Lords that things are the way they are, and they can like it or lump it. Perfectly valid, constitutionally. Logically, I disagree. We want to attract valuable people to a reformed Lords, but with little real power, the kind of people we are going to attract will be similar to what we have now; a retirement home for MPs and the party faithful. Which leads to the argument of: what’s the point?

Please don’t get me wrong – this is not any kind of a defence against the situation we have now. In a 21st century democracy, even allowing for their successes like striking down 90-day detention, for an unelected chamber to have control over the people is an anachronism. However there surely needs to be more discussion about the new dynamic as this bill progresses through Parliament.

Oh, and the ugly? The growing seeds of opposition are already beginning to raise their heads, the usual suspects from the AV campaign, muttering about cost (it was disappointing, however, to hear David Steele making this point in an interview on 5Live yesterday). And, naturally, Labour have got something to say.

Their opposition is apparently down to them supporting a 100% elected chamber. If only, at any time in recent memory, they had been in government with a large majority for more than a decade, then maybe they could have enacted their ideas…

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