Home > House of Lords, Reform, UK Constitution > Electing the Lords – A good idea?

Electing the Lords – A good idea?


Since at least the 1911 Parliament Act, there have been calls to elect the House of Lords. The Act’s preamble looked forward to a House based on popular suffrage. 1968 was the last time that a government came close to electing the Lords; the Bill failed due to collusion between Labour and Conservative backbenchers.

In 1999, the election issue was fully revived by the expulsion from the House of 90% of the hereditary peers, creating an almost entirely appointed second chamber. The Labour government declared this was to be the ‘first stage’ in Lords reform – implying a second reform, in which the House presumably would be made fully elected. But despite over ten years of opportunity,  Labour was no closer to abolishing the  Lords.  Now, we have a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition which has declared its intention to present draft legislation in 2011 for a fully or partly elected second chamber.

In the past few years all three of the main parties have seemingly all come to the same conclusion – that the Lords should be replaced by a fully or mainly elected second chamber.

Reform of the House of Lords is all well and good.  I am in favour of reforming the Lords, but I consider election of the Lords to be a dangerous and ill-considered idea.  Naturally, many Lords share this view: in June 2009, ComRes conducted a poll of 100 peers and found that only 9% supported an elected House of Lords and 18% a partly elected House.  48% favoured a fully appointed House (1).

The public’s wish for an elected second chamber shouldn’t be trusted too much either.  Ask anyone if they’d like something to be elected, and they’ll likely favour electing it – who wouldn’t?  Vernon Bogdanor notes the inherent contradictions in the public’s supposed desire for an elected upper house(2):

The members of the Wakeham Royal Commission on the House of Lords, which reported in 2000, were told by many witnesses that the Lords should be elected.  The witnesses were then asked whether they favoured an upper house which replicated the Commons…They of course did not.  They wanted an upper house without party politicians which could continue to undertake the valuable work currently done by the House of Lords.  Yet, in every modern elected upper house, elections are organised by political parties and run by professional politicians.

The vote in the House of Commons in March 2007 undoubtedly created a new political climate in favour of a ‘popular’ upper house. But an upper house elected on a low turnout and peopled with anonymous nonentities whose only qualification is long party service would be likely to devalue democracy rather than improve it.

I contend that  proposals to elect the House of Lords are seriously flawed, and replacement of the Lords by an elected ‘Senate’ (shall we say) would destroy an institution which brings real added value to the work of Parliament, and replace it with a Chamber which would be incapable of reproducing its present strengths and devoid of any additional strengths.

It would have a diminished level of expertise;

It would be less independent than the present House;

It would fail to represent a credible alternate national constituency;

It would be considerably more expensive than the present House; and

It would sacrifice one source of legitimacy for another.

I won’t be entirely negative, though; I will propose a more constructive reform which will address some of the main problems with the existing House.

I will not be touching upon the presence of the hereditary peers or the bishops of the Church of England (which constitute a tiny proportion of the Lords), until the final section touching my proposals for reform.  I may be repeating myself from time to time – the issues relating to election are numerous and interlocking, after all – so please just bare with me and I hope that my meaning and the intricacies will become clear.

Onward!

Sources:

1 ComRes, Peers Panel Survey: An Independent House (June 2009)

2 Vernon Bogdanor, The New British Constitution (2009), p 171

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