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Electing the Lords would undermine its value

The Independent

Reforming the House of Lords is set to dominate the coming session of Parliament. It remains a totemic political demand of the Lib Dems and the Government has agreed to fast-track reform into law by including in the Queen's Speech, the Coalition agreement to elect by PR at least 80 per cent of the Lords.

If rumours are to be believed, the joint committee charged with realising this goal is to recommend an Upper House of 450 peers, 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed, with a 15 year non-renewable term. The biggest shock has been the committee's recommendation for a referendum on any constitutional change, a move the Lib Dems, fearing a repeat of the AV fiasco, bitterly oppose.

The real shame is that the committee is ducking the issue by endorsing some very bad ideas for reform while passing the buck to the electorate in the hope they will vote the whole matter down. By failing to produce a viable alternative to the Coalition's proposals, the committee is eschewing its constitutional responsibilities, leaving us with a choice between the indefensible and the unconstitutional.

For it is not clear that an elected House of Lords is a good, progressive or even constitutionally literate proposal. The proposed electoral system will simply extend the dominance and control of the main political parties and increase the writ and power of the executive. Moreover, the joint committee has bizarrely recommended an open preferential voting system which in Australia has resulted in parties controlling the lists, further strengthening their grip.

If the reform proposals succeeded we would see a decline in the diversity of opinion expressed and a House less representative of the population than it is currently. Representative democracy in a modern society simply lacks the means to deliver anything but party dominance. Independence of mind and distance from party dictate is exactly what people find most democratic and valuable in the Lords. Paradoxically, wholesale election puts this at risk.

Plus, an elected House of Lords would quickly destroy the complementary relationship that exists between the two Houses of Parliament, providing the Upper House with a competing democratic mandate. We would then replicate the worst of the American political system through partisan conflict between the Houses.

Most worryingly, the proposed reforms are profoundly unconstitutional – they fail to recognise our own tradition and act as if our mixed constitution has no enduring merit. Britain survived the revolutions of the past two centuries that ruined virtually every other European nation. And this is due in no small part to our mixed constitution which secured the practice of democracy by uniting it with the principle of plurality and ensuring that the democratic process was never wholly captured by one party, elite or faction. The endemic flaw of purely democratic polities is that they cannot secure a general national good beyond the narrow interests of sectional politics or naked self-interest.

British principles of an organic and mixed polity should ensure that our democracy is inextricably allied with the principles of plurality and participation. In that respect the reforms proposed are a constitutional dereliction. Yet, the status quo is equally unsustainable. We need to think again and – in line with our constitutional principles – recast the Lords as a hybrid composed a third each of appointed, elected and nominated members.

The third of Lords selected by appointment should be from civil society.Representatives could be selected by an appointments panel whose express brief would be to populate the Lords with distinguished figures from an array of professions, including universities, trade unions, charities, the armed forces, the police, business, sports, the arts, the sciences and all the major faiths. Our politics needs those who are esteemed in their professions and not subject to any political whip or partisan concord. These are the crossbenchers of tomorrow.

To be truly representative of society, the Lords must incorporate election but have some element of regional representation. The surest way to engage a public exhausted by traditional politics and revive their faith in elected representatives, is to provide them with independent advocates for their towns or cities whom they can truly regard as their own. Election is the obvious means of selecting suitable regional representatives but a form of non-partisan election which bans party-based nomination would do much to enrich our electoral politics.

The House is political and so, a degree of party involvement is essential. The final third of the Lords should comprise members nominated by the parties, perhaps on the basis of their share of the Commons vote.

So yes, let's reform but let's note that an elected house would be the greatest extension of government and executive power we have seen since Charles I dissolved Parliament in the 17th century. For democracy's sake we must oppose an elected House of Lords.

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Gravatar Chris 23 April 2012
Interesting angle, although I cannot help but profoundly disagree with the notion of "For democracy"s sake we must oppose an elected House of Lords". r/>r/>Similarly, a stronger House of Lords with a legitimate, democratic mandate elected by PR would EITHER "replicate the worst of the American political system through partisan conflict between the Houses" and create legislative deadlock or provide the "greatest extension of government and executive power". Surely it can"t do both? How can it stop the government from doing things while at the same time extend the power of the government?r/>r/>Arguments against legislative deadlock rest on the assumption that legislative deadlock is a BAD thing, an argument that hasn"t won me over yet. If a body which actually proportionally represents the democratic will of the people (something the Commons doesn"t do) stops a government elected on a minority from forcing through policies nobody voted for, then that can only be a good thing in my eyes. Deadlock = scrutiny, accountability.
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Gravatar Kaveh 10 April 2012
Is there not somewhat of a contradiction in Phillip Blond"s argument? On the one hand, the danger of Lord"s reform is that it will encourage " [political] party dominance" and the "loss of independence of mind". On the other hand, the danger is a loss of the "complementary" relationship between the two houses and a descent into US style partisan bickering.r/>r/>Otherwise interesting article. The idea of civil society representatives seems good in theory and is similar to Frank Field"s ideas but it does raise questions of who qualifies to be on the appointment panel and what thespecifics of the selection process will be. The answers to those questions will be very important. It could potentially be problematic if the civil society representatives are seen to be selected by an unelected quango in the form of this appointments commission. Whatever other faults it may have, this is one problem that the proposal for an elected Lords avoids.r/>r/>r/>kpourvand.wordpress.com
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Gravatar Kaveh Pourvand 23 April 2012
@Phillip Blond: Thanks for your response Phillip. r/>r/>I think the other posting from Chris perhaps stated it more clearly but I"ll give it another go. As I understand your argument, on one hand the fear is that house of lords reform will lead to it"s domination by the major parties, and by extension, the Executive. The problem then is that legislation can fly through without a proper check from a second house. Now that seems a reasonable objection. r/>r/>But then on the other hand, you also appear to state that House of Lords reform will rather empower it relative to parliament, allowing the second house to use its new democratic mandate to obstruct parliamentary legislation, culminating into a replication of the worst of US style partisan bickering. r/>r/>Surely it is either one problem or the other? r/>r/>r/>r/>kpourvand@wordpress.com
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Gravatar Phillip Blond 17 April 2012
@Kaveh: thanks for your comment - I am afraid I don"t quite see the contradiction - both reasons you cite I think are true and both are good reasons to to go for a majority elected lords - but perhaps I am missing something ....?
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Detailed Summary

Date Published
10 April 2012

Issue(s)
British Civic Life

About The Authors

Phillip Blond

Phillip is an internationally recognised political thinker and social and economic commentator. He bridges the gap bet...