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Published on February 27th, 2012 | by Jack N W Ellis
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="308" caption="The House of Lords by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (1809)"][/caption] The Liberal Democrats have already failed to deliver on electoral reform, having had to settle for a referendum over that miserable little compromise - alternative vote - rather than their preference for a more full-blown system of proportional representation. Worse still, the subsequent 'Vote Yes on AV' campaign fell flat on its face. Now, looking to assert their position within the coalition and prove that they still represent the voters who helped them into government, the Liberal Democrats have tried to put their failed attempts at Commons reform behind them and have turned their attention to the Upper House. Since the United Kingdom doesn't have a formalised constitution, the role of the House of Lords is not properly defined by law. As with other bicameral systems, its general reason for being is to review proposals for new laws that originate in the lower chamber, as well as to make proposals of its own. A fairly important part to play, then. It is therefore something of a travesty that, in spite of baby steps towards meaningful change, the House of Lords is still composed of a significant number of hereditary nobles who owe their privilege to the conquering exploits of distant Norman relatives, as well as Church of England bishops who can probably thank the C of E’s founding member for their comfy red seats. However, the real power to choose the vast majority of the remaining peers rests with the political parties. Doesn’t this increase the likelihood of a stagnant House of Lords, stuffed full of cronies who serve little purpose other than to grant rubber-stamp approval to the government’s whim? Although it has these democratic shortcomings, the House of Lords is often thought of as the part of parliament that actually pays proper attention to proposed legislation. Sceptics of reform argue that, in its current state, the House of Lords brings something like technocracy to Britain, being as it is composed of appointees who have had extensive careers in various areas of industry and public service. These experts can therefore bring a pragmatic approach to proposed laws, counterbalancing the ideological bias imposed on bills by the highly politicised Commons. The worry that reform might compromise this status - changing the current crop of supposedly disinterested  appointees with elected, partisan career politicians - is the most convincing argument against change. The turnout and results of the AV referendum seemed to suggest that electoral reform was by no means a priority to the public. Even the level of public disgust in the wake of the MP's expenses scandal was not enough to garner interest in reform of the House of Commons, despite the Yes to AV campaign using that as a key argument in its favour. With that level of apathy, it is hard to see why the electorate would give one jot about the much more arcane and little heard-of second chamber. So - does reform of the House of Lords matter? In a word; yes. First, having an outdated and undemocratic institution at the heart of our state just doesn't sit easy with the idea that Britain is a shining example of a successful modern democracy. Some have proposed abolishing the second house altogether and adopting a unicameral model, but the extra scrutiny that a second chamber affords to the democratic process can only be a positive thing, so long as it is not a mirror image of the first chamber. Sure, electoral reform may not be a priority for all of us. Nevertheless, the argument that the public simply aren’t interested in changing the status quo is insulting and echoes the condescending approach of the No campaign during the lead up to the AV referendum. If it were true that we voters don’t care about Lords reform, then why did all three of the main political parties feel the need to promise a wholly or mostly elected Upper House in their 2010 manifestos?

2

AV was a missed opportunity; don’t let Lords reform go the same way

The House of Lords by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson (1809)

The Liberal Democrats have already failed to deliver on electoral reform, having had to settle for a referendum over that miserable little compromise – alternative vote – rather than their preference for a more full-blown system of proportional representation. Worse still, the subsequent ‘Vote Yes on AV’ campaign fell flat on its face. Now, looking to assert their position within the coalition and prove that they still represent the voters who helped them into government, the Liberal Democrats have tried to put their failed attempts at Commons reform behind them and have turned their attention to the Upper House.

Since the United Kingdom doesn’t have a formalised constitution, the role of the House of Lords is not properly defined by law. As with other bicameral systems, its general reason for being is to review proposals for new laws that originate in the lower chamber, as well as to make proposals of its own. A fairly important part to play, then.

It is therefore something of a travesty that, in spite of baby steps towards meaningful change, the House of Lords is still composed of a significant number of hereditary nobles who owe their privilege to the conquering exploits of distant Norman relatives, as well as Church of England bishops who can probably thank the C of E’s founding member for their comfy red seats. However, the real power to choose the vast majority of the remaining peers rests with the political parties. Doesn’t this increase the likelihood of a stagnant House of Lords, stuffed full of cronies who serve little purpose other than to grant rubber-stamp approval to the government’s whim?

Although it has these democratic shortcomings, the House of Lords is often thought of as the part of parliament that actually pays proper attention to proposed legislation. Sceptics of reform argue that, in its current state, the House of Lords brings something like technocracy to Britain, being as it is composed of appointees who have had extensive careers in various areas of industry and public service. These experts can therefore bring a pragmatic approach to proposed laws, counterbalancing the ideological bias imposed on bills by the highly politicised Commons. The worry that reform might compromise this status – changing the current crop of supposedly disinterested  appointees with elected, partisan career politicians – is the most convincing argument against change.

The turnout and results of the AV referendum seemed to suggest that electoral reform was by no means a priority to the public. Even the level of public disgust in the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal was not enough to garner interest in reform of the House of Commons, despite the Yes to AV campaign using that as a key argument in its favour. With that level of apathy, it is hard to see why the electorate would give one jot about the much more arcane and little heard-of second chamber.

So – does reform of the House of Lords matter?

In a word; yes.

First, having an outdated and undemocratic institution at the heart of our state just doesn’t sit easy with the idea that Britain is a shining example of a successful modern democracy.

Some have proposed abolishing the second house altogether and adopting a unicameral model, but the extra scrutiny that a second chamber affords to the democratic process can only be a positive thing, so long as it is not a mirror image of the first chamber.

Sure, electoral reform may not be a priority for all of us. Nevertheless, the argument that the public simply aren’t interested in changing the status quo is insulting and echoes the condescending approach of the No campaign during the lead up to the AV referendum. If it were true that we voters don’t care about Lords reform, then why did all three of the main political parties feel the need to promise a wholly or mostly elected Upper House in their 2010 manifestos?

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  • anniedemer

    Thoroughly agree. It's also nice to find an article that's clearly written and thoroughly researched! (Used 'thoroughly' twice in one sitting…might need a lie down).

    Are any dramatic changes to the HoL still on the cards? I've heard that they've been instrumental in blocking the recent (rushed) welfare bills on more than one occassion – do you think that that will make the Coalition (or I suppose the Conservative party, specifically) keener to dilute their powers?

    Annie

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