Lords reform: elective dictatorship and turkeys for Christmas

By Babak Moussavi

The unelected chamber

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.

Should we maintain Lord Hailsham’s “elective dictatorship”?

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.

  1. Surely the best argument against the current proposals are the 15 year terms? Imagine that – voting in a politician who will not have to face a vote for 15 years??

    That is the worst of both worlds – a Chamber that is not particularly democratic, and a Chamber that is full of politicians. Unaccountable politicians at that.

    Any serious proposal must have a much shorter term. Perhaps 6 years, like in the US.

    • Michael Parsons said:

      Perhaps we are too hung-up on voting reform as a way of increasing citizenship participation? If we revisit the original discussions of democracy in Classical times, elections were always seen as evidence of lack of democracy and the triumph of oligarchy, because of the power of gifts and influence. Of course there is a role for a Parliament, perhaps as anexecutive body – the Athenian Assembly could not make law, for example, but issued decrees- and there were very strict scrutiny systems . Referendums have their place too but it can cost £millions to collect signatures or present arguments as the recent AV flop ardently demonstrates.

      Methods of representation and unease about elections have long been a liberal and democratic topic of debate. Can I suggest we now take a wider and more imaginative look at these problems? Deliberative Polling, for example. Fishkin’s article in The European (“Most People are rationally ignorant”)is a live debate. Also the possibility of making bureaucracies (private ones like banks as well as government bureaucracy) more efficient and responsive can be investigated – for example by randomising promotions: “The Peter principle revisited: A computational study” in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications Volume 389, Issue 3, 1 February 2010, Pages 467–472 sees this as a viable way of loosening-up hierarchies that are currently promoting members up to their level if incompetence. so that senior office-holders are generally duds.

      Reform proposals for the House of Lords generated a number of suggestions for selection by lot, and this has also been discussed for MP’s by Marc Abrahams, (16 April 2012). “Improbable research: why random selection of MPs may be best”. The Guardian (London).

      In short, are democrats not becoming disappointingly stodgy in reform discussions? Citizens at present are rationally indifferent to the political process because they can initiate so little and are never able to be directly involved in the generation and implementation of policy.

      • Michael, many thanks for this very thoughtful comment – I like the way you’ve approached the problem from different premises. Perhaps you’d like to expand this “wider and imaginative look at these problems” into an article which we’d be happy to publish?

  2. Peter Yates said:

    Great post. A few comments:

    You say that the solution for elected “Lords” who abuse the system by creating gridlock is “to throw them out at the next election”. This holds for the Commons, but as I understand it the proposals for the Lords were for 15-year non-renewable terms. This seems to me to ensure the worst of both worlds – the list-based electoral system ensures you end up with partisan representatives (the crippling feature of the Commons), but also that those representatives aren’t bound by the classic check on behaviour in a democracy – accountability to the electorate at the next election.

    I would also suggest that there’s another, simpler argument against reform of the Lords – the quality of its legislative scrutiny. No-one who has ever compared debates in the Lords and Commons could seriously argue that the latter is impressive (or even competent) when it comes to holding the executive to account and examining draft bills. The Commons is, the vast majority of the time, a useless, childish, rubber-stamping chamber which is controlled entirely by the whips. I worry that an elected Lords means an inevitable drop in quality in Parliament. If we decide to sacrifice some of that quality on the altar of democracy then so be it, but we should at least acknowledge the fact. (Incidentally, for these same reasons, it would be suicidal to abolish the Lords and have a unicameral system).

    I’m a democrat, and I recognise that if I really do accept the concept of democracy then I have to be in favour of an elected Lords. Nonetheless, I would hate for us to end up with another chamber as embarrassing as the Commons.

    • Hi Peter, thanks for your comments.

      I don’t disagree with you. When I said that “throwing them out” is a safeguard, it relates to a principle, but that principle is evidently impeded if the elections don’t come round for nearly a generation. As Sam B points out above, the 15-year idea is nuts. Maybe it could be that long for appointed experts, but not another set of elected politicians. (Even the coalition’s plans for 5-year fixed terms for the Commons is too long: that should be reduced to 4, which is closer to the global average.)

      Your second point is a good one, and one I didn’t address, though also not one which I think many MPs articulated! If anything, it also calls for reform of the House of Commons though. That said, Commons select committees do regularly conduct some impressive inquiries that go on to influence policy, so it is not as though the lower chamber is totally useless at scrutiny. But I accept your point that the current system may not be ideal for a unicameral system: one of the (possible) reasons for why it works in the Scandinavian countries is that they have functioning, consensual systems that allow for proper deliberation.

  3. paolop1966 said:

    Reblogged this on Musings and commented:
    A really interesting and detailed post on a subject I recently blogged about

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