This is the first of two contributions to the debate reforming the UK House of Lords. This post summarises the issues raised by various blogs who wrote about this in a coordinated effort on 10th August. A companion piece makes a novel proposal for reform. It summarises the blogs, and draws out some common themes. There seems to be a greater degree of consensus about the characteristics we want from a reformed second chamber than there is on how best to achieve it.
What the bloggers said
Phil at Actually Existing gives a historical perspective to the current position. Simon Holledge at Skakagrall gives a Scottish context, saying that Lords Reform is an essential stage in a series of constitutional reforms that may eventually bring real democracy to every part of the British Isles. Mary Reid and Matt Bowles say that 94 years is long enough to wait for reform. Jim Bliss – an irishman – is amused by the absurdly anachronistic system of governance still being employed by his former colonial oppressors
Will Howells asks why we need a second chamber at all, but that if there is one agrees with Tim Holyoake and Sara that it should be elected by some sort of proportional representation. Keith Wilson and (with some reservations) Chris Applegate support the Second Chamber of Parliament Bill.
Sandra Gidley (an MP) can’t understand why this is taking so long. Richard Allan (who used to be an MP) is perplexed that anyone would choose appointment rather than election. Talk Politics calls for a plebescite so that the people can choose how they wish to be governed. Kerron Cross, Malcolm Clark, Stephen Linlithgow and Stephen Glenn all argue that Lords Reform would be a fitting tribute to Robin Cook, who died on August 6th, 2005.
Many of the posts complain about patronage and cronyism. Carolyn Roberts asks why Andrew Lloyd-Webber has a seat in parliament. Justin of Chicken Yoghurt argues against jobs for life. Paul Davies and The Woodland Path agree.
Brian Barder (my Dad) argues that the second chamber should reflect the increasingly federal nature of the UK political system, and refers to his contributions to the Selection Committee on Lords Reform.
Only a few bloggers argued against an elected second chamber (though this is a biased sample, as this mass blogging was part of an Elect the Lords campaign.) Nosemonkey advocates reform of the Lords argues against direct election. He says that the job of the second chamber is to scrutinize legislation, that the public would not tend to elect the most expert people, and that a joint committee of both houses should make appointments. Tim Hicks replies that democracy is better than the alternatives. Tim Worstall vents his contempt for politicians of all sorts and wants something random instead. John Band at the Sharpener and Jamie at Blood and Treasure argue for a lottery to choose the membership of the second chamber. Nick Barlow thinks a third of the second chamber should be elected every General Election. Oliver Pell thinks that there is a choice between a democratic House of Lords and an effective revising chamber. Talk Politics calls for elections with a small number of appointees who would be politically independent. Stuart Parr at Wonko’s World thinks that elections are a way for party managers to increase control and argues for a hereditary chamber because it would be more random.
James Graham says it is important for reformers to work together, and if necessary compromise, to ensure that the coalition for reform remains united.
There were not many new ideas. Bishop Hill thinks it is a problem that all the parliamentarians are in London, and suggests a virtual parliament instead. Tim Worstall proposes a hereditary seco
nd chamber in which the person raised to the peerage does not get to sit in the house: only his or her offspring. I proposed a second chamber elected by non-geographical interests, such as vocational groups – about which more in my companion piece setting out a proposal for reform.
The New Politics Network also has more brief a round-up of blogs on House of Lords reform.
Reading these blogs and the comments on them, there were a number of common threads, though none of these was universal.
- The commentators were almost all in favour of having a a second chamber that acts as a check on the House of Commons. Only a few contributors entertained the possibility of a unicameral (ie one chamber) system. Most thought the second chamber should provide an alternative point of view, perhaps with the benefit of more expertise and experience than the lower house. Some thought it should be able to stand up to protect the rights of minorities against populism.
- Almost all the contributors felt that the second chamber should not simply mirror the House of Commons in its composition. In particular, there was a strong feeling that the second house should not be subject to the same party disciplines of the lower house. Proposals to ensure that it has a different, more independent composition, using a different electoral system, and/or changing the timing so that the second is not elected on the same timescales as the House of Commons. The desire to ensure that the second chamber was independent of the party discplines of the lower house was also a key argument for the minority of contributors who favoured either a hereditary system or a lottery.
- Many of the blogs argued that an elected second chamber could be used to broaden electoral representation. This might be achieved with some form of more proportional representation such as Alternative Vote or Single Transferable Votes. Some thought that the second chamber should reflect the federal nature of the United Kingdom (rather as the United States and South Africa both use their second chambers to give equal representation to each state or province). This might be thought to balance the perceived iniquities of the first-past-the-post system used to to elect the House of Commons.
- There was noticeably strong distaste for the patronage implied by a system of appointments to the second chamber, with a number of individual appointments mentioned as examples of cronyism or corruption. Appointments were also thought to to be problematic because they lead to a chamber that is both unrepresentative and insufficiently politically independent of the House of Commons. An advantage of appointments, however, is that they enable the second chamber to include people of real expertise and experience.
- Some, but not all, the contributors argued that the second chamber should be elected to provide it with democratic legitimacy. While some worried that an elected house might be subject either to populism (celebrities rather than experts) or simply another venue for the operation of political parties, so providing no independent check on the House of Commons, most contributors thought that legislators should have a democratic mandate.
The Elect the Lords campaign has an interesting international comparison:
65 countries in total have a two-chamber parliament.
Of the 46 countries that wholly or mostly elect their second chambers, 29 are established democracies.
By contrast, of the 19 countries that wholly or mostly appoint their second chambers, just 5 are established democracies.
Of the 46 countries that mostly or wholly elect their second chambers, 28 hold direct elections (in the case of established democracies, 19 out of 29 hold direct elections).
The UK is the only established democracy to appoint its members for life terms of office. The tiny African Kingdom of Lesotho is the only country in the world with a comparable second chamber to the House of Lords.
The current position is very hard to defend – and none of the bloggers attempted to do so. There is a surprisingly broad consensus on the characteristics we want from a reformed second chamber. Yet there is less agreement about how best to achieve those goals. Because we do not agree on what the new system should be, we seem to be stuck with a system that nobody likes.
You may also be interested in a companion piece about my proposal for an elected second chamber based on vocational constituencies, which I believe is one way to meet many of the goals for a reformed House of Lords identified by this discussion.