The Distant Dream of Lords Reform

A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state
A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state

 

In their latest editorial on the subject, The Guardian appears to have given up on the one-step, transformative reform of the House of Lords that was set in motion by the last Labour government and the next steps enshrined in the coalition agreement (before the Tories and LibDems blew the plan to bits in a fit of politically childish pique). Instead, they now advocate a slower (if that were possible), multi-step process of gradual and incremental reforms before we arrive at the cherished goal of having a working bicameral legislature where both houses hold democratic legitimacy.

We begin with the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth at the current state of affairs, and lamentation that the yearly spectacle of undeserving people being honoured with the privilege of sitting in the upper house has taken place yet again:

What an embarrassment to the so-called mother of parliaments. Thirty more cronies and party donors, leavened by a handful of the genuinely worthy and the downright eccentric (what’s an active journalist like Danny Finkelstein doing on the list?), appointed to the democratic world’s largest legislative chamber. It’s hard to imagine where they’ll find room to sit, never mind a job to do, in a chamber where in some debates there’s a 90-second limit on speeches. Yet proposals for reform are discarded. Even a modest suggestion of voluntary retirement founders. And prime ministerial patronage continues more or less unchecked.

The whole exercise is, in the widest sense of the word, corrupt: a system where individuals who make huge party political donations and – however sound their judgment and broad their experience – are awarded a place in the legislature as a gift from the leader of the party is just as much a scandal waiting to happen now as it was when Maundy Gregory was operating the system in the interests of Lloyd George.

But after this strident denunciation of the way things work, The Guardian goes turncoat on us:

Yet despite its Ruritanian appointments process, the Lords is generally acknowledged to be working unexpectedly effectively. Peers do take seriously their duty to scrutinise legislation, they have a good record for improving it, and some have been doughty defenders of individual freedoms. And look closely at who actually sits in the Lords: since the hereditaries were largely ejected in 1999, it’s become a more representative cross-section of the electorate – and the share of the votes cast – than the Commons, and more ethnically diverse. Even the gender balance is at least no worse. The danger is that the more useful it is, the harder it will become to reform.

Well, yes. This is why bicameral legislatures are a good thing. A more ruminative upper house will generally act as a brake (if not a stop) on the more reckless or short-term politically calculating moves of the lower house (and Lord knows that countries like Britain and America need such a check). This fact holds true even when the upper house in question has no real democratic legitimacy. But the fact that the House of Lords is doing okay-ish at the moment (if we choose to ignore the recent lobbying scandal and the fact that 26 lords spiritual continue to exert the not-always-benign influence of the Church of England over our lawmaking) is insufficient reason to reduce the pressure for comprehensive reform.

Most of the hereditary peers are now gone, so Britain is at least spared the indignity of having nascent laws scrutinised by the inbred landed gentry of the realm. We are just left to tackle the political appointees, the favoured party fundraisers and other beneficiaries of prime ministerial patronage who continue to occupy the place. We must also end the ridiculous, anachronistic idea that it is in any way appropriate to reward a person for their deeds (no matter how worthy or altruistic) by giving them a seat in our legislature. The honours system must be divorced from the political system as a matter of great urgency.

The Guardian concludes:

No one supposed, in 1999, that removing the hereditary peers was where reform would end. But since then, the next step has invariably been too much for some and not enough for others. So without abandoning the ambition for an elected upper chamber, perhaps it is time to make progress in smaller steps.

I would rather abandon any expectation of further changes in the next two years in the hope that more comprehensive reform can be achieved following the 2015 general election. This is not an unrealistic goal. True reform was part of the coalition agreement and very much on the cards until the Tories and Liberal Democrats decided to have a mutually destructive bust-up over linking the policy to changing electoral boundaries. Assuming the parties can find it within themselves to grow up slightly, Lords reform can be part of a future coalition agreement (or single party manifesto) too.

Semi Partisan Sam says no to any more slow, incremental reform of the House of Lords. The nation would be better off suffering through another two years with the upper house stuffed full of bewigged, enrobed anachronisms and political patronage beneficiaries before finally kicking the lot of them out after 2015 rather than enduring another decade or more of hand-wringing and glacial progress.

House Of Lord Reform Fallout – Continued

Not so fast. First we need to preserve democracy by translating the referendum question into Cornish.

 

While Conservative MPs and most right-leaning commentators continue to shriek loudly about dastardly betrayal by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, the rest of the world has moved on and decided that it is the Tories who are the coalition cheaters in this particular relationship. Quoting a recent YouGov poll, The Spectator reports:

Here’s an interesting statistic from YouGov: more voters think the Conservatives have broken the coalition agreement than think the Lib Dems have failed to stick to it. When asked whether the Tories have ‘mostly kept to their side of the deal they made in the coalition agreement’, 51 per cent said no. For the Lib Dems, 45 per cent of voters thought the Lib Dems had stuck to the coalition agreement against 32 per cent who thought they had not.

So 51% of voters think that the Conservatives have failed to uphold the coalition agreement, while only 32% of voters think the same of the Liberal Democrats.

The ludicrous position in which the Conservative Party now finds itself is entirely due to political blundering by their leadership, and blinkered stubbornness from their grass roots. The Liberal Democrats have, in general, taken far more of a political kicking over the past few years than the Conservatives as a result of their mutual decision to go into coalition government together – look no further than the tuition fee increase furore as a prime example. If, as some commentators say, electoral constituency boundary reform is the most important thing to the Conservatives as they seek to win a straight majority at the next general election in 2015, perhaps they should have read the tea leaves better and realised that thwarting a cause dear to the hearts of their coalition partners might bring about a reprisal that would damage a cause dear to their own.

To clarify my own position: I am no fan of modifying the voting system in this country, and certainly no fan of AV. I’m glad that the referendum yielded a resounding “no” vote. I am, however, very much a fan of having the upper house of Parliament finally becoming a democratically legitimate body, one with equal status to the Commons and thus ending their primacy if possible (though the current bill would not do this).

It is all very well talking about principle and the fact that ministers are expected to support the government in Parliamentary votes. But we are living in interesting times and uncharted political territory. We have a government that no-one elected, comprised of two parties with (at times) very divergent views. The “glue” that holds this together, and the only thing stopping the Conservatives from having to form a lame-duck minority administration or calling a new election, is the threat of political reprisal by one party when the other strays. You squash my policy proposal, I’ll scupper yours. Is it pretty, and is it ideal? No, of course not. Coalition government is not ideal in any way. But successive governments, in their laziness, have failed to put in place a better mechanism for dealing with a hung Parliament, so this is what we are stuck with.

We conservatives screwed our Lib Dem coalition partners on House of Lords reform, and now they have hit us back. We tried calling the waambulance and demanding the sympathy of the British electorate for the terrible things that the naughty Lib Dems did to us, and by a margin of 51%-32% they told us to quit crying and grow up. By and large, no one outside the Westminster village cares about process. They care about outcomes. Referring to a sub-clause in the coalition agreement with outraged, wounded indignity will not win us any more supporters.

So there are two choices now, as far as I can tell:

1. Yet another embarrassing, totally avoidable political U-turn. David Cameron gets tough with his backbenchers and whips them into line to pass the House of Lords reform bill, or

2. Cameron accepts the Liberal Democrat retaliation, waves goodbye to boundary reform and possibly the only chance of winning an outright majority at the next general election.

It’s not complicated.

Lords Reform – Actions Have Consequences

Not so fast. First we need to preserve democracy by translating the referendum question into Cornish.

 

Tim Montgomerie, writing at Conservative Home, believes that the decision by the Liberal Democrats to renege on their support for electoral constituency boundary reform in retaliation for Prime Minister David Cameron’s inability to win Conservative backbench support for House of Lords reform represents the Conservative’s “worst single electoral setback since Black Wednesday”, when Britain was forced to quit the ERM, torpedoeing the Torie’s reputation for economic competence:

When the Parliamentary and Voting Constituencies Bill was passed I celebrated the moment, noting that the introduction of fair-sized seats of equal population could boost the number of Tory MPs at the next election by up to twenty. That was certainly Conservative HQ’s view. This morning the hope of boundaries fairness** is close to death, if not dead. After having explicitly said there that there was no connection between Lords reform and equal-sized seats Nick Clegg has u-turned and claimed there needs to be a connection.

** Boundaries “unfairness” is one of the explanations for why Labour get a majority with a 3% lead in the popular vote while Conservatives need an 11% lead for the same result. Or to put it another way John Major got a majority of 21 in 1992 with an 8% lead and a 42% share of the vote while, in 2005, Tony Blair got a 66 majority with just 36% of the vote and a 3% lead.

There has been much outrage from Conservative MPs and political commentators about the decision, but most of it seems to be directed toward the Liberal Democrats – “how dare they do this to us?!” – than inward at their own political strategy and leadership.

If, indeed, boundary review is so crucial to the Conservative Party’s hopes of winning an outright majority at the next general election (and if this is the case, when Conservatives have managed to win elections under similar circumstances in the past, it is a pretty damning indictment of the current party’s policy positions and campaigning ability), perhaps David Cameron should not have played chicken with Nick Clegg on such an important matter.

Tim Montgomerie pretty much agrees in his article:

The only advantage of the likely defeat of boundary changes is that a central plank of the Cameron/Osborne battleplan has gone. Any residual complacency must have gone. They can’t carry on as they were. They need a game changer and, preferably, soon.

And perhaps, instead of venting their anger at Nick Clegg when said strategy blows up in their faces, Conservatives with an eye on the next election would do well to remember that because they sadly, miraculously failed to win the 2010 election outright, as a consequence they govern in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, and that if they screw over their coalition partners on a policy point close to their heart, they are quite likely to get screwed in return.

I don’t care what Nick Clegg said about whether Lords Reform and Electoral Boundary Changes were linked or not back in April of this year, as Guido Fawkes appears to do:

The Boundary Review had nothing to do with House of Lords reform. It was linked to the AV referendum which the LibDems secured.

Clegg accusing others of breaking promises beggars belief. The LibDems are desperately trying to spin this, but in reality the backbench Tories are the ones to sacrifice political gain for sticking to their principles – however wrong they are to defend the current upper chamber.

Waah waah waah. The Conservatives are supposed to be the more mature, politically experienced political party and they got played by the LibDems. Now people like me have lost two policy proposals that were dear to our hearts – democratic reform of the House of Lords, and reform of the UK’s constituency sizes and boundaries to make them more equal. I have no sympathy for them.

The Conservatives are the senior party in the coalition government. They should try acting like it.

No Lords Reform After All

Not so fast. First we need to preserve democracy by translating the referendum question into Cornish.

 

The Conservative-led coalition government is about to make another costly, unwise and unnecessary policy reversal, though finally a non-budget related one, with The Telegraph reporting that the planned reforms of the House of Lords are going to be shelved, in the face of strong Conservative backbench opposition.

They report:

Earlier this year, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg outlined plans to replace appointed peers in the House of Lords with elected senators. The first elections were to be held in 2015 with the elected members of the house serving for 15-year terms.

However, dozens of Conservative MPs and peers expressed their strong opposition to the proposal amid fears it would undermine the supremacy of the Commons.

Downing Street was forced to delay a key vote on the reforms last month to allow further discussion with the rebels. It is thought that Mr Cameron was prepared to water down the reforms to help win over more than 90 Tory MPs.

However, The Daily Telegraph has learnt that this has now failed and the reforms will be scrapped. Downing Street feared that debate over the reforms could drag on for months and alienate the public at a time when ministers should be focused on pulling Britain out of recession.

This is yet another stinging rebuke of David Cameron’s leadership and ability to stamp his authority on his party, and to articulate and then deliver a vision for government. Indeed, in the same article, The Telegraph notes:

The Coalition has been accused of mounting more than 20 about-turns – moves which the Prime Minister has insisted show strong leadership as he rejected pushing ahead with unpopular policies.

There’s no strength in walking back so many elements of the Budget, and other policy and manifesto positions, in the face of opposition or a newly invigorated Labour Party in opposition. It just makes you look weak, and lacking in conviction or any real plan to turn the country around.

It is also a significant setback for those people such as myself who wanted to try to reinvigorate British democracy by bringing to an end the anachronistic setup of the current upper house, and replace it with a more powerful, democratically legitimate body that could act as a check on the “elected dictatorship” of the Commons. If, as expected, the reform plans are now killed, it is unlikely that they will be any appetite to revive them in the near future.

But more importantly, it has potentially very serious consequences for the ongoing survival of the coaltion government, as Isabel Hardman notes in The Spectator’s Coffee House blog:

This triggers that new phase of coalition that Nick Clegg and his colleagues have been warning about: the era of ‘consequences’. Although Conservative ministers have been considering other policies that they could hand to their coalition partners, these will not be enough to appease them: it’s Lords reform or nothing.

How this will play out is fascinating: the main threat is that the Lib Dems will scupper the boundary reforms, but to truly block their passage through parliament would require ministers in Clegg’s party to vote against the legislation. Would those ministers then be sacked? If they were, that’s curtains for the coalition. I’ve asked Number 10 about this before, and to date the response has been ‘that’s a hypothetical question’. Not for much longer: this new phase of coalition is very much uncharted territory, not simply because it heralds a new pattern of relations, but because it’s very difficult to see how the Lib Dems can carry out their ‘consequences’ threat without walking out of the government too.

Our attentions are currently consumed by the fantastic Olympic Games currently taking place in London, but it is certainly starting to look as though we could soon be living in very interesting political times, too.

A House Of Lords For The Modern Age

Not so fast. First we need to preserve democracy by translating the referendum question into Cornish.

 

I have wanted to weigh in on the topic of House of Lords reform for some time now, but have struggled to find a suitable jumping-off point from which to do so. I finally found one a few days ago, in the form of Ajay Kakkar’s op-ed piece in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Why Nick Clegg’s Senate is seriously flawed”, and now that the initial fuss about the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold ObamaCare in the US is starting to die down a little, I finally have the chance to commit my thoughts to the blog.

In short, I am in favour of major reform of Parliament including its structure, composition and working practices, certainly incorporating democratic reform of the House of Lords. Kakkar’s piece, taken from a lecture that he delivered at Oxford some time ago, seems to me to represent a good summary of the many varied arguments against reform, so I am going to put forward my own views as a kind of point-counterpoint with his article.

Lord Kakkar (himself a crossbench Peer, from which knowledge we can perhaps already deduce his stance on this issue) begins thus:

Yesterday, a piece of legislation was laid before Parliament that has far-reaching ramifications for our country and its people – at a time when the political challenges we face are already considerable.

This is the first argument you are likely to hear against reforming the House of Lords, and it is a typical delaying tactic used whenever anyone wants to oppose or slow down any kind of change. It is the “oh, but surely we must focus exclusively on the pressing issues of X and Y, and we can worry about Lords reform in the future” argument, and we see it used against proponents of gay marriage and a multitude of other issues.

The “political challenges” that Lord Kakkar refers to here are, we can safely infer, the need to weather the current economic crisis. Personally, I do not believe that a single-minded focus on any one topic, be it from the executive or from Parliament, is very healthy. We are country of 65 million people and our government should be capable of tackling more than one initiative at a time.

Next comes an argument which is often deployed, but rarely explained – the supposed importance of ensuring the primacy of the House of Commons:

An elected second chamber is a principle that seems appealing. But we must consider two things. First, the House of Commons represents the will of the people, as expressed through democratic elections. As such, it must continue to hold primacy over the second chamber – or any other part of the machinery of government.

Really, it must? A fully or mostly elected House of Lords would also have democratic legitimacy, of a different and quite possibly beneficial kind. Elected peers would, under the government’s proposals, serve single terms of 15 years and thus would be more inclined to take the long view, and be less influenced by day-to-day political manoeuverings or machinations. Why, then, should the Commons hold primacy?

You often hear from opponents of Lords reform that the House of Lords is “complementary” to the Commons, acting in a reviewing and advisory role only, and that it need not therefore be democratic. But some other political systems – including that of the United States – actively try to build in conflict into their institutions, so that none are able to exercise unchecked power. This to me seems very sensible and worthy, and a democratically legitimate and empowered House of Lords, with a constitutional requirement that both must approve legislation before it becomes law, seems right and logical.

And then:

Second, there is the admirable clarity of our current constitutional settlement. The people elect their representatives to sit in the House of Commons, whose confidence any government must command. Those representatives can, in turn, be held to account and dismissed via the ballot box.

Within our constitution, the principle of democratic legitimacy is paramount – but there is no failing in the House of Lords, in itself, that would be resolved by a largely elected second chamber, as currently proposed. It is argued that democratically elected senators would be more accountable than appointed ones. But how would the election of 80 per cent of the chamber for a single, non-renewable term of 15 years, never facing re-election, make senators accountable to the voters who elected them?

Only a sitting parliamentarian, die-hard traditionalist or deluded person could look at Britain’s constitutional settlement and praise its “admirable clarity”. The thing isn’t even written down. There is nothing transparent, simple or clear about the division and exercise of power in Britain today, and I really wish I had been at that lecture at Oxford University to see if Lord Kakkar was able to deliver that line with a straight face.

Moreover, is Kakkar seriously trying to make the case that today’s breed of greasy pole-climbing career politicians is preferable to those who cannot run for re-election because they serve a single term? I would argue quite the opposite, that being able to take the long view, being less beholden to opinion polls or the 24-hour news cycle, could be a very good thing – at least for one of the two chambers of Parliament.

Another question that desperately needs to be answered is how this new second chamber will function in the context of its relationship to a democratically elected and constitutionally dominant Commons. The preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act states, with absolute clarity, that Parliament will have to take measures to limit and define the powers of any Upper House enjoying a popular mandate. It seems very unwise – at best – to create an elected Lords (or Senate) without setting out the precise powers of the two chambers and how disputes between them are to be resolved. If the Supreme Court is to play a role in that process, will Parliament still be secure as sovereign? Will our country need a written constitution to ensure the primacy of the Commons and protect the role of the monarchy?

This is from the Norman Tebbit “but if we allow gay marriage what courtesy title should we bestow upon the gay spouse of a Lord?” school of argument. The fact that reforming the Lords to add democratic legitimacy would entail extra work and the answering of some additional questions is hardly a reason not to proceed. Of course we need to properly define the relationship between the two chambers of Parliament as part of the reform process, that goes without saying.

Will the new UK Supreme Court be involved? I don’t know, but sure, let’s discuss that. Will we need a written consitution? Absolutely! Lord Kakkar says this as though it would be a bad thing and another legitimate reason to avoid reforming the Lords, but I have been clamouring for a consitutional convention and a written British Constitution for years, I think it would spur much-needed discussions about the role and size of government, and its relationship with the people. And again, this worry about the primacy of the Commons. Why is this essential to maintain? I do wish an opponent of Lords reform would take the next step and explain why the Commons should remain dominant in our system, rather than just stating it as though it is commonly-held and irrefutable fact.

But perhaps the proponents of an elected second chamber believe their reforms will make a qualitative difference to the kind of people who sit there. If they did, they would surely be worth considering. But what sort of senatorial candidates are likely to come forward? Will we see many social workers, historians, scientists, charity administrators, campaigners or academics? Or is it more likely that the Senate will be seen as an attractive option for those party politicians unable to secure election elsewhere?

I would rather have a democratically elected House of Lords full of conniving fools and morons than an undemocratically composed House of Lords full of people who did favours for former Prime Ministers, and a bunch of bishops from the Church of England. Just my two cents.

The role of the Lords, whatever its membership, should be to share the increasing burden of scrutinising and improving the torrent of British and European legislation that comes forward; to bring to bear experience, expertise and independence of spirit in advising and counselling the Commons; and ultimately and always to bow to its primacy.

Why?

So in short, that’s it. I’m still casting around the internet looking for an opponent of House of Lords reform who can actually take the next step and answer some of these questions. Why must the Commons retain primacy? Why would a written Consitution, even a limited one that just defines the relationship between the chambers of Parliament, the devolved assemblies and the Supreme Court be such a bad idea? Why are single terms of a long timespan worse than neverending terms of five year intervals?

As yet I have seen no compelling answers to these questions from those who want to preserve the status quo, and so on this issue I am squarely behind Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.