Lords Reform – an alternative

Lords Reform – an alternative

Might a plan like this win more approval?

Conspiracy theorists have ascribed the revolt by many Conservative backbenchers earlier this month in the vote on Lords reform to any number of factors. What it really boiled down to was that it was viewed as the wrong solution to an irrelevant problem.

It’s seen as an irrelevant problem by many in the Commons on both sides of the chamber because whatever the theoretical deficiencies of the Lords, its unelectedness assures the Commons of primacy. Once it becomes elected, the Commons has a rival. It’s still known as the Upper House and while that’s just a courtesy these days, it wasn’t always and MP’s may well be wary of returning it to that status.

The Lords also does the job asked of it, or which it has reserved to itself, to a reasonable standard: tidying up the legislation put forward by the Commons. It has put forward its independence and expertise as virtues to balance the democracy down the chamber. True to a point, though by far the majority of Lords are political appointees, and they are also the most active peers.

Again, that’s a self-serving argument. Independence of party influence is virtually incompatible with democracy in any large country where parties are necessary to make elections manageable and to allow governments and individuals mandates to be held accountable to. In any case, while the Lords is less partisan than the Commons, and notwithstanding the Cross-benchers, it’s still a chamber where party plays a very significant role.

So what might work? I’m sure that pbc, with the wealth of political knowledge and insight it has, could come up with a better set of proposals than the government has. Two big criticisms of those to start with are that 450 members is far too many (a revising chamber without constituency duties should be able to manage on far fewer), and that single-term mandates are next to useless – while there is some independence to be gained by not facing the electorate for a longish period, being debarred from re-election undermines the election in the first place.

The following ideas might be an alternative starting point:

  • A Senate of 150 or so members
  • Elections by STV from the Euroconstituencies
  • Senators elected in thirds, tri-annually i.e. Senators elected for nine-year terms
  • Powers of the Senate as those of the post-1911 House of Lords
  • No member of the government may sit in the Senate, except perhaps a Leader of the House (and an equivalent reduction in the size of the government to prevent even more MP’s becoming ministers)
  • No bishops, appointed or hereditary members
  • Members of the existing House to elect 100, then 50 of their number to act as transitional temporary members prior to the third round of elections.
  • If the House of Lords or Senate is to have a revising role, then it must be able to be ultimately over-ruled by the Commons but extra legitimacy does come from a democratic mandate and so its powers ought to be increased. However, if it is to have a different role from the Commons, it ought to have a different route to membership otherwise it will simply become a pointless carbon copy. STV, very large electorates and longish but renewable terms might provide that. Removing ministers could also assist it in acting as a revising and scrutinising chamber.

    Would a Bill containing such proposals stand any better chance than the current one of becoming law? Perhaps it would. Many of the speeches opposing the legislation in the Commons were based on principle and practical objections. Remove some of those objections and at the worst, you smoke out the true reason for opposition; at best, you get the reform.

    David Herdson

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