How to fix the Lords

Prospect Magazine

How to fix the Lords


The Prime Minister had the answer—but it melted away

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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  1. June 19, 2013


    As the raison d’etre of UKIP is to restore sovereignty back from an unelected Brussels to the UK, I am rather surprised that you do not favour a 100 percent elected Upper House,whose members are elected ,say,2 years to the day following a GE.

  2. June 20, 2013


    Mr Farage, if the Lords were determined by the results of the last general election 35% of the seats would be empty as that is how many people did not vote. Surely their opinions should be registered? Failing that a box on every voting slip marked “None of the above” should be included. Hardly a democratic vote if you are only allowed to say yes to one of whatever selection of muppets is placed before us.

  3. June 20, 2013


    I think the failure of the last attempt at reform was more related to the fact that it was a bald attempt to replace the existing house of about 80% retreads and failures that cannot be removed with 100% party nominees of similar likely pedigree. Just with a long tenure instead of a lifetime.
    Hardly an improvement.

  4. June 20, 2013

    John Sampson

    This is an interesting article. My penn’orth is that the Lords should be people worthy of respect. Political appointees are out.

  5. June 20, 2013


    As the House of Lords only scrutinizes English legislature, I would rather see a houseful of hereditary peers such as the Bishops of the church of England any day than the likes of Windbag Kinnock and his wife and Lords Falconer and Foulkes not to mention clapped out ex politicians such as Prescott.

    Known as the Upper West Lothian Question, it is time non-English constituency MPs in the H.of C and non-English peers in the H. of L. were stopped from interfering in English only matters.

    England needs a champion to stand up for it and stop this affront to democracy and hopefully it will be Nigel Farage and UKIP.

  6. June 22, 2013

    Christopher Smith

    The whole point of the Lords is to have a check and balance against the elected politicians in the Commons. Any system which merely produces a mirror image f the Commons would seem pointless.
    If it were my call, the Lords would be a body of people who have attained high office in non-political jobs and are ex officio peers for as long as they hold that office. E.g. the Governor of the Bank of England, The Chancellors of defined universities, the heads of county councils, heads of state institutions such as police, health service, church, leaders of trade unions, and so on. This body would be a mine of expertise. And by linking the peerage to the tenure of the job, we would be assured of a continual healthy turnover of personnel.

    • June 22, 2013


      Yes who would all be looking for something out of the office, what it should be is simple a fully elected office elected by the people. Who wants people who have worked for high office who are and have been careerist and would then get a nice paid job and would I suspect owe some allegiance to the people who put them into a well paid nice little earner.

      When electing MP’s then people should stand for office in the House of what ever you want to call it second chamber house of representatives sounds nice labour loved America.

      But no way should it just be a place for over stuffed officials who have spent a life time in policies or business associated with politics,

  7. June 23, 2013

    Simon Counsell

    Just abolish the House of Lords. It is a waste of time.

  8. June 23, 2013


    Good article – the point is that the House of Lords has proved its worth, and that it is an effective ‘fine tooth comb’ which vets politically motivated changes to legislation and matches new laws to existing statute and case law, so ensuring that change is gradual and well-evidenced.

    Hereditary peers and life peers made of High Court Judges, Bishops and old career politicians provide us with an experienced Upper House which does a good job and is wealthy enough on its pensions not to be greedy for payment for services. Politicians who want to change this have their own agendas. I happen to think the balance is right – and it is good to know that lobbying for financial reward is against the rules…

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Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage is leader of UKIP 

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