What to do with the House of Lords?

I used to think that the problem of the House of Lords was badly posed, and that the sensible thing to do was for the UK to become unicameral, and that this would be the one development which would force the House of Commons to get its one house (or House) in order, and develop sensible systems for scrutinising and revising legislation, etc. But I don’t think I think that any longer. The example of unicameral legislatures around the world (e.g. New Zealand) is too depressing, and the thought of having even more power in the hands of the whipped, drilled and disciplined Government majority is depressing, too. And I’m no longer optimistic that the change would force sensible change in the way the Commons went about its work. So perhaps the status quo is better than outright abolition of the House of Lords. (Don’t worry: I’m not going soft on the monarchy in my old age: the British monarchy remains vile, both in theory and in practice.)

The problems in the way of sensible Lords reform remain quite large, of course. A wholly elected chamber might challenge the supremacy of the Commons, which nobody seems to want; people who like the standard of debate in the Lords – which is often alleged to be relatively higher than that in the Commons – worry that having too many elected politicians in the place will devalue it of its worth; some worry that if some are elected, but not all, then the elected ones will have a kind of political legitimacy which the others lack; and virtually any mechanism of appointment or selection seems pretty ghastly to justify. And so on. The usual, familiar stuff.

So, here’s a solution, which seems to me to attentuate many of the outstanding problems. At any rate, I haven’t yet seen what’s wrong with it.

Hold elections for (all of the) membership in the House of Lords, using some kind of PR list system. (It doesn’t have to be with national, closed lists, but they make exposition easier). Voters have the choice of voting for the various party lists, but instead of voting for a party list, they can tick the box marked “Cross-Bench / Independent”, or something similar. And then, if 15% of voters check this box, then the House of Lords appointments commission (which gave us the so-called People’s Peers), would be permitted to fill 15% of the seats with the kind of people it appoints (earnest scientists, ex-police chiefs, Geoffrey Howe’s wife Elspeth, etc.)

Instead of a two-tier chamber, then, in which some owed their election to appointment and others to election, everyone in the Lords would owe their election to a combination of the two: either they were selected by a party elite to get on a list, and got elected from that list; or the people voted to have members selected by an appointments commission. Under this system, if the political parties did just put up lists of dreary party hacks, they would effectively be inviting voters to vote for the supposedly independent (in fact, of course, centrist and middle-class) peers which the appointments commission would generate. And if voters genuinely do want their legislators in the revising chamber to have a non-party-political background, they can cast a positive vote for this kind of person.

Notice that this doesn’t answer all of the questions one might have: how long should Lords be elected for?, how often should elections be held?, and so on. A variety of answers to these questions is entirely possible, and compatible with this electoral mechanism. It would even be possible to elect people to a life term, and then at periodic elections simply to fill the vacancies that existed at the time. It isn’t an argument about the powers of the second chamber, but merely about its composition. And it certainly isn’t an ideal system — the appointments commission is terribly problematic. But it is an argument that seeks to produce a chamber which has a certain kind of democratic legitimacy and which gives everybody an equally-weighted vote, but which allows the voters to prevent the House from being simply a bunch of politicadoes marking time and dutifully obeying their political paymasters as they wait for a seat in the Commons, and which won’t produce a Lords with a single-party majority, and which gives us an electoral mechanism – and one better than the mayoral ballots ever do – of assessing just how much the national party elites are alienating the voters.

Whaddya reckon?

Mad Max writes [6.2.2003]: None of the following is in any way thought out at great length, and I may well be missing obvious flaws in my own arguments, but I thought I might as well take up the challenge of spotting flaws in your suggestions for a new House of Lords arrangement in my bid to combat late-night boredom…

>And then, if 15% of voters check
>this box, then the House of Lords appointments commission (which gave
>us the so-called People’s Peers), would be permitted to fill 15% of
>the seats with the kind of people it appoints (earnest scientists, ex-
>police chiefs, Geoffrey Howe’s wife Elspeth, etc.)

presumably 5% = 5% seats filled, 20%=20% rather than some fixed 15%, or is 15% supposed to provide some sort of threshhold? (i’ll assume not, as i can’t see the purpose a threshhold would serve here, and it would be more likely to work against a sensible composition than in its favour). Anyway, I guess there would have to be some sort of mechanism which tied these people down to being independents, rather than allowing them to throw their lot in with a party. In which case, I can see the independent category becoming one of two things – a long row of empty seats as these members remain comfortably in their country houses/labs/retirement homes; or the gradual cohesion, whatever the Independent members personal beliefs, of an increasingly powerful, largely amorphous group claiming to represent ‘the people’s interests’. Complete cynic that I am, I’d be tempted to say that the latter would not be a good thing, (though the implications of non-whipped representation would seem to be democratically positive), since such a group is likely to be much more influenced by media hysteria than the traditional parties and would thus bring Daily Mail hate schemes and the like into the political forum a bit too much for my liking. That is, by creating a potentially large group of appointed independents, who would be chosen, as i think you suggest, largely as a result of disaffection with the main parties, this system could invite large degrees of outside manipulation, the pressure to bow to which would be great, both on the independent side, who know they have been elected to represent an under-represented public voice which they may perceive in hysteria campaigns (not after all possessing the party programme nor the individual manifesto with which they could most easily justify refusal to bow to such pressure), and on the side of the parties, who will know that a failure to listen to the voice of the independents, when this group is influenced by a supposedly popular voice, will lead to ever greater media criticism and public disaffection from politics. Since there is bound to be media and public criticism from every quarter until the chamber can prove itself effective anyway, this pressure could be particularly great in the first stages of the new chamber, and once the pattern of media campaign/independent-group public backing/party acquiesence was established, i can’t see it being easy to avoid. I’d admit very quickly that this is only one particularly pessimistic possibility, and that since all this is going on only in the 2nd chamber anyway, the impact on policy initiation might not be too huge. But also, I think the effect of a PR system in the second chamber would be to increase calls for such a system in the House of Commons, or at least to cast the 2nd chamber in a more favourable and representative light than the first for those of us who favour some form of PR. Neither of these things is bad in itself, but were a group of independents to form itself together in the way I’ve suggested, the first possibility would mean that this group naturally extended itself to the House of Commons when the system was extended, as it would by that time be an established pattern, and the second possibility would simply mean pressure for the House of Commons to initiate the legislation demanded by the 2nd Chamber Independents in the same way as the parties in that chamber, since this group would be elected by a system which is inherently more representative than FPTP.

>And if voters genuinely do want their legislators in the revising
>chamber to have a non-party-political background, they can cast a
>positive vote for this kind of person.

I would suggest that the possibility of something happening as I outlined above would have little effect on the formation of party lists, which, if closed, will always be composed of party hacks simply because of the need to get loyal people behind you in a system so geared on opposition, something which would be no less the case with the emergence of a new power bloc in the form of the independents. Even if such a group were not to emerge, I can’t see this feature of the system being affected by the provision for non-party members, because such a group would either be incredibly disparate, and thus wield almost no power at all unless its numbers were *very* large; or increasingly cohesive, following either the media-influence pattern I suggested above, or simply becoming another party bloc; or perhaps both.

I think your suggestion would definitely be a good way of measuring disaffection with the parties (though the effect of this on procedure I suggest would not ultimately be a good one) and I think it would reduce hackishness (though I’d say this was at the expense of giving too powerful a role to hysteria). Equally, it isn’t inherently a bad idea, but I’d be tempted to say that all these discussions of a new type of composition etc miss the central problem of the style of political procedure in the UK. What needs to be instituted is a system which will favour co-operation in the 2nd house (something which those who like the current system think it already has to a greater degree than the HoC, which is true, but of course a “greater degree” is dismal in relation to any sort of progress regarding our perpetual oppositionism), so that both parties and independents can work with their consciences and real ideas (an effective co-operative system could also media-influenced views to be aired satisfactorily without them holding an undue amount of weight) in order to scrutinise properly the legislation of the lower chamber. Your suggestion is not at all in conflict with such a system, but could not itself go very far at all even in facilitating, let alone advancing, real co-operation. I don’t see any easy answer to the problem, though, as it doesn’t seem possible to follow in the second chamber alone the sort of co-operation strategies seen in countries like Germany, as we lack many of the necessary pre-conditions, having neither the historical nor the institutional background of such systems. Any progress made at all on this front would seem to be a very long-haul thing. In the absence of this sort of change, my own favoured system has occasionally been the slightly absurd pure open list system, where everyone runs on their own behalf and people must bid according to what they know of these people’s ideas. The system’s major benefit would be the possibility for real representation of specific minority group interests, as there’d be no need for regional representation alone, and this is likely to raise interest in politics among those groups most disaffected from it at the moment. Of course, it has the obvious drawbacks of requiring far too much information; of making any sort of group-forming very difficult and likely only at the expense of specific interest compromise in the same manner that exists now; and of course it is open to exactly the same charge of susceptibility to media influence that I suggested above. So, having left that particular preference behind, I can say that I still favour a more traditional system like AMS in general terms (along my lines of preference, the list part of the system would be open), but this still doesn’t overcome the existing procedural problems, and I fail to see how any mere change in composition could ever achieve that.

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