From the Archive: House of Lords Reform

I posted this on the Stoa a decade ago, and I’ll reprint it here, as it’s suddenly topical again, and I still more or less agree with it.

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 attenuate 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.

One thought on “From the Archive: House of Lords Reform”

  1. If the Lords were elected through some sort of PR voting system then I’d quite like it to challenge the supremacy of the Commons, because it would have a better electoral mandate (IMHO). Obviously (to me) PR for the Commons would be the first-best solution but given that the self interest of the Tories and Labour means that we’re unlikely to get that, a PR-elected second chamber with substantial powers seems like a good second-best solution.

    I don’t think the current attempt at reform will succeed though because rebel Tories will team up with Labour to defeat the programme motion and then it will get filibustered out. The hope then is that disaffected Lib Dems vote against the govt to block the boundary changes for the next general election. Having said that, there is a good chance that the Fib Dems will roll over in the face of the Tory juggernaut once again, as they always do. A backbone would be too much to ask from these collaborators.

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