Friday, August 28, 2015

The case for House of Lords reform

The furore in the press and social media over yesterday's peerages rather misses the point.

This is as good as it gets under the present system.

Lists like yesterday's are the inevitable consequence of Blair's botched and half-complete "Reform" of the Lords and of the fact that an unholy alliance of Ed Miliband and Tory backwoodsmen prevented the coalition government from finishing the job.

Whatever the media thinks, the names put forward by all three party leaders are people who can be expected to turn up and work at the job and most if not all of them have highly relevant experience. No potential PM, not Jeremy Corbyn, not any of the three dwarves, none of Dave's potential Conservative successors will do anything better under present rules.

If you were to say that is an excellent argument for replacing the House of Lords by a largely or wholly elected second chamber I entirely agree with you, as I did when the coalition tried to do precisely that.

You could make a small-C conservative case that the House of Lords worked in practice in its' original form, but by replacing the descendants of Charles II's cronies with those of himself and his successors, Tony Blair destroyed the case for leaving it alone.  He also made it inevitable that until the job is finished the Upper Chamber would grow further after every change of government as each new administration would put more people into it to ensure they could work with the new chamber.

Reform of the Lords has always been Britain's Schleswig-Holstein question which hardly anyone understands and nobody can solve. Many years ago there was a letter in The Times on the intractability of getting agreement on reform through from a hereditary peer who wrote

"My father told me I would never have a seat in the House of Lords and I have now been there longer than anyone else."

The Clegg reforms were not perfect but they could and should have been worked into something which would have been a great deal better than the system which guarantees lists of new peers like the one announced yesterday. The tragedy was that although the coalition's proposals were very similar to the proposal in the election manifesto on which all Conservative MPs had been elected, a large group of Tory backbenchers convinced themselves that this was a sop to the Lib/Dems, and Labour, however many things they are incompetent at, are brilliant at talking the language of reform while sabotaging any actual reform if that will help them embarrass a non-Labour government.

Unfortunately the House of Commons has always succeeded in sabotaging every attempt to set up a robust second chamber with a strong mandate because MPs prefer to have a weak one, or none at all. What the unlikely alliance of Jesse Norman and Ed Miliband did to the Clegg reforms, an even more unlikely alliance of Michael Foot and Enoch Powell had done to Harold Wilson's attempts at reform nearly half-a-century before in 1968.

Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian in 2012 after the failure of the last attempt to reform the Lords about

"the unholy alliance problem. Any proposal of change tends to run into diehard defenders of the status quo joined by passionate reformers who oppose the particular form of change on offer. The unholiest of these unholy alliances, was surely the 1968 partnership of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, the former determined to keep the Lords as it was, the latter a believer in outright abolition. They came together and won."

The problem is, as the wreckage of attempt after attempt at reform demonstrates, is that it is not very difficult for those who want a weak second chamber and those who don't want one at all to make common cause.

I would like to see the House of Lords replaced by an wholly or largely elected second chamber, but the present government has neither the size of majority nor any electoral mandate to get anything of the sort through unless a cross-party consensus can be agreed. The chances of that are not good.

In the absence of this, some modest reform is worth pursuing by consensus. Local government has a rule that councillors who miss every council meeting for six months without leave of absence are automatically removed from office. The same applies to school governors. Something similar, combined with a retiring age, for membership of the House of Lords would surely be a good idea.

But I won't be holding my breath.

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