The dust is still to settle from the government’s shelving of the Lords reform bill on Tuesday. But some things are already clear. It was an embarrassment for Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and the minister in charge of constitutional reform, just as it was for David Cameron, who was unable to control his backbenchers. A backbench rebellion of around 50 Conservative MPs would have led to a probable defeat of the timetable motion, given Labour’s opposition. In the end, 91 MPs threatened to rebel.
These rebels were armed with a number of arguments against reform. To begin with the most fatuous one, some claimed that now was not the ‘right time’. The reasoning for this was that the public is concerned about the economic situation, and don’t want to think that their elected representatives are worrying about, well, frivolous things like democracy. Constitutional issues are rarely, if ever, high on the public’s list of priorities (a YouGov poll suggests just 18% of the British public think Lords reform is an urgent issue), but that does not mean they are unimportant. Indeed, it maybe that because people are so used to the situation of having partly unelected rulers, they aren’t too fussed anymore. No wonder other countries find the British constitutional situation so odd.
In any case, the shelved vote was strictly speaking over the timetabling of the bill. If the rebels feared that this bill would interfere with the country’s economic governance (which is going so well as it is), they would presumably wish to get it out of the way as soon as they could. Unless, of course, this argument was just as cynical as it was mistaken.
The rebels may well have had other objections, which leads me to consider some of the more plausible arguments against Lords reform.
The first is that the Lords should not be turned into an elected house, for this would challenge the supremacy of the Commons. This may be true, and even the Joint Committee examining the government’s draft bill pointed out that “a wholly or largely elected reformed House will seek to use its powers more assertively, to an extent which cannot be predicted with certainty.” But is this a principled reason for opposing it? As with the argument that the current Lords would oppose reform because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, MPs might oppose reform because it might challenge their power. That would make this objection too seem rather cynical.
But perhaps there are better reasons to oppose the introduction of an elected second chamber if it competes with the lower house for authority and legitimacy, as this may lead to gridlock. Britain, it is said, prides itself on strong government (or, in Lord Hailsham’s words, “elective dictatorship”), which was one of the justifications for the (mainly) majority-yielding electoral system of First-past-the-post (FPTP). A cross-national perspective, however, suggests gridlock is not inevitable, even if the US currently provides a supporting example for the claim. Indeed, coalition too was supposed to lead to gridlock: and yet this government has been a highly active one. This argument against the dangers of gridlock is therefore essentially targeted against potential abuse of the system, envisaging the possibility that MPs in both houses will refuse to compromise. The check against this sort of behaviour is to throw them out at the next election, however; not to just admit defeat and decide that democratisation is not worth the price.
Alternatively, those who like democracy, enjoy the primacy of the Commons, and dislike the proposed reform of the Lords for fear of gridlock could argue for a unicameral system. So far, I have not heard anyone give the argument of abolishing the Lords completely. It may seem radical, but at least it would be consistent – more so anyway than supporting the status quo. It is also worth remembering that some of the Scandinavian countries enjoy a unicameral legislature, and have some of the most progressive, democratic societies in the world.
There may be a compromise solution anyway, however, which is to introduce a smaller proportion of elected Lords (or Senators), and not the 100% which Labour’s manifesto called for, or 80% which the current reform plan proposes. This might make the upper house seem part democratic and part expert (if the appointments system can be reformed too), which may be able to maintain its function as a deliberative body, rather than a legislative one.
Indeed, the 26 members of the Joint Committee on Lords Reform, drawn from both chambers and representative of all the main parliamentary groups, disagreed on many of the issues themselves. There were disagreements over the composition of the Lords, but 16 of the members agreed that if it was to have an elected component, 80% was the correct figure. Some members of the committee, however, including the British historian and Crossbencher, Lord Hennessy, issued an ‘alternative report’, arguing that for the Commons to retain its primacy, the second chamber must be appointed, not elected.
In any case, it is worth emphasising the obvious point that one can support Lords reform, without supporting this specific bill.
There are, then, a few arguments against the Lords reform bill. But the Conservative backbenchers have scuppered it for now, and we shall see how the government responds. It has been mooted that Mr Cameron might offer Mr Clegg a watered down version which would be easier for the rebels to support. But there is also the worry (or hope) that the Lib Dems will retaliate, and try to block the boundary reform that the Conservatives believe will earn them 20 or so more seats at the next election, eliminating a ‘bias’ they feel exists against them. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a foolish thought, given that they need 35,000 votes to win a seat, whereas their coalition partners need closer to 120,000.
Two further things need to be mentioned when discussing Lords reform. Firstly, reform is necessary. This is not to say that an elected house is required, but that the status quo is unsustainable. A research group led by Meg Russell, an expert on Parliament at the Constitution Unit, published a report in 2011 on Lords appointments. There, the group, which itself included a number of Lords, argued that the ever-rising number of Lords was having “negative effects on the functioning of the chamber,” and that greater swelling might render the House of Lords “completely unable to do its job”. The coalition’s wish to achieve proportionality would rapidly expand the House further, but the problem is to do with unreformed conventions surrounding appointments and resignations or dissolution. The report argued that there should be an immediate moratorium on Lords appointments, until the House shrinks to 750, which should serve as a cap. It also called for the system of future appointments to be made more transparent and sustainable, by entrusting the Appointments Commission with more responsibility and power to determine party allocations. (It also called for the adoption of Lord Wirral’s proposal that Lords can ‘retire’ from the Lords, but this has been implemented.)
These are easily implementable steps, and would not require new legislation, just a reform of conventions (which underpin so much of the British constitution). It would, at the very least, improve the functioning of the House of Lords, even if it is no substitute for the wholesale reform that Mr Clegg hopes to achieve.
A second point to note with Lords reform is that the advocates of democratisation might appear to be holding back from the full logic of their argument. Charles Kennedy yesterday wrote that:
The House of Lords has many fine aspects, but at its heart it is a betrayal of the core democratic principle that those in the enlightened world hold so dear – that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who must obey those laws.
If the argument is as clear as that, then he and others who hold this view would appear to have to push for the abolition of the monarchy too. Against that prospect, a rebellion of 91 backbenchers suddenly seems rather puny.