Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Should we elect the Lords?

Jonny Medland

There are a variety of options available for restructuring of the House of Lords, ranging from a fully elected chamber, to a ‘hybrid chamber’, consisting of both elected and appointed members. The one option which is no longer justifiable is the status quo – a legislative chamber with no democratic accountability.

One of the main arguments often put forward by defenders of the current system is that the system of appointing peers leads to a higher quality of members of the House of Lords than would be the case if they were elected. This argument, of course, has several glaring flaws. The most crucial of these is the fundamental disdain of democracy which it displays - in democracies, people with the power to make laws should be chosen by the people. Challenging this premise, as advocates of an appointed Upper Chamber inevitably do, opens up an entirely new set of questions, including whether they would support an entirely (or partially) appointed House of Commons also. Under their reasoning, after all, such a move would lead to a government which had a greater regard for expert opinion, and thus be more desirable.

The argument that a system by which all peers are appointed is desirable hinges on the idea that these peers are somehow more knowledgeable than the elected members of the House of Commons. While no-one would deny that there are pre-eminent thinkers in the House of Lords, the numbers of these enlightened peers should not be overstated. The ongoing controversy over how people are made life peers reflects the fact that all too often those who are elevated to life peerages receive their honour for involvement in partisan politics – exactly the idea which those who are against any elected element to the Upper Chamber oppose. Indeed, many members of the House of Lords are former politicians, demonstrating the fact that it simply is not possible to depoliticise the institution. As things currently stand, there are 736 members of the House of Lords. 497 of whom are affiliated to a political party. Put another way, under the current system, we an upper Chamber of the national legislative body which is entirely unelected, but which is overwhelmingly a political body. 67.5% of its members hold a formal political affiliation, and of those with no political affiliation, 11% are members of the clergy. Such a body is not representative of Britain, and is also clearly not an institution which values expertise over other traits. Due to the poor attendance rates at the House of Lords, legislation can be amended or delayed by unrepresentative groups of retired Members of Parliament – hardly an image which is in keeping with the idealised portrayal of the Lords as an enlightened chamber of democracy.

Since a system in which the Upper Chamber consists entirely of appointed members is not suitable, attention then rightly turns as to how it should be replaced. Although I favour an entirely elected chamber, there are certainly questions with how peers should be elected, or whether there should be a small number of appointed peers. The first thing to note is that it is entirely possible to create an elected Upper Chamber without undermining the supremacy of the House of Commons. Bicameral legislatures, such as that found in Germany, succeed in having one chamber with more power than the other without entering into a constitutional crisis, and there is no reason why the same should not be the case in the United Kingdom. The House of Commons will be able to determine which powers a revitalised House of Lords will have from the outset, meaning that they will be able to retain their supremacy.

There are also a range of options for how members could be elected to the Chamber – since another first part the post system would merely replicate the composition of the House of Commons, there are possibilities regarding proportional representation and election from local authorities, creating stronger representation of local government in Westminster. While these questions are vital, however, it is first important to move past the status quo which exists today. If the current system worked as its advocates claim, with independent experts scrutinising government legislation, then there would be a legitimate argument in favour of keeping it. This, however, is manifestly not the case. Rather than having the House of Lords being a talking shop for contributors to political parties and retired politicians, the time for giving the people a chance to determine who they want representing them in both chambers of government is long past. As liberals, we should not let the fact that the House of Lords has recently delayed and defeated legislation which we strongly oppose cloud our judgement on the broader issue here – that opening up the House of Lords to the electoral process will improve democratic accountability and performance.

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