The state opening of the House of Lords. How can the institution be reformed for the better?
Let’s be honest: it isn’t going to happen. The coalition has exhausted its energy for constitutional meddling and, with a portmanteau of failure, the last thing it needs is to rake the perennial midden that is House of Lords reform. Looking back, the coalition’s idea was to abolish the lot of them and replace them with a directly elected chamber. This idea was shelved due to the rebellious quarter on David Cameron’s backbenches.
So to replace this idea he came up with another one: to have a proportionate House of Lords—proportionate, that is, on the result of the previous election. Lords would still be appointed, but the appointments would reflect the vote share across the country. Indeed Lord Strathclyde, the former leader of the Conservatives in the Lords, stated that the government is “working towards the objective of creating a second chamber that reflects the share of the votes secured by the political parties at the last general election.”
All pretty clear. Whether it is a good idea or not is a moot point—it is stated policy. Except of course, it isn’t. It again is one of those fine sounding ideas that somehow just melted away. But, if it were taken up, a system like this would mean that the Green party, and of course the United Kingdom Independent party, would all have representation in the House of Lords. (The Scottish National party would also benefit, if it ended its refusal to go to the Lords.)
In fact, under his stated rules, Ukip would be due 24 peers out of the total of 790, as opposed to the three seats that it currently holds in the upper house. When ministers have been asked about this they have responded in the following way: “it is for the Prime Minister to determine the number of nominations for life peerages.” Or, “it is the government’s continued intention that Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.” Or even, “my Lords, the Prime Minister is still keeping it under review.”
When asked directly by Lord Pearson, one of Ukip’s three peers, this is how the Prime Minister responded: “At present, I am afraid I am not intending to increase the number of Ukip peers, but I have noted what you say in your letter.”
So has he dropped the policy? His ministers suggest not. Will he act on his policy? I suspect the Prime Minister words his letter well; what is clear is that he is afraid of a bank of Ukip peers sitting on the red benches making life even more difficult for his coalition than they are already doing to themselves.
As to real root and branch reform, there is no doubt that a rational man or woman who set out to design the revising chamber of any nation, let alone a great nation such as ours, would not dream of suggesting a model like that of the House of Lords. But surely the point of such an organisation is not how it is designed—and it wasn’t—but whether it works. And by and large the Lords has worked very well for centuries. It may be an affront to the egalitarian mindset of the 21st century. But the Lords has acted as a far more coherent and successful opposition to both the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, than Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in the Commons ever did.
Its quality, like so many of our institutions has been diminished by the stuffing of the benches with failed and retired politicians. It cannot have passed people’s notice that the recent lobbying scandal that has washed around the Woolsack has exclusively involved this class of peer.
But despite this element, the cross-bench peers, the Lords Spiritual (Bishops of the Chursh of England), and experts in their various fields, enliven and invigorate the debate. The presence of hereditary peers provides the upper house with a sense of continuity.
The overall number of peers could usefully be reduced to a more reasonable 500. This could provide a space for those such as Ukip, who are cut out of the national debate through the failings of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Most importantly, changes to the House of Lords such as those suggested here could be made without sacrificing the odd, organic constitutional growth that it is.
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