A Peerless Democracy?

The House of Lords is well overdue for reform, and David Cameron’s Resignation Honours List has shown why we need an elected upper house, says Antony Tucker.

The House of Lords has become the largest unelected upper house in the world – its functions need to be transferred to a smaller, fairly elected body. (Photo: BBC/ Getty Images)

The House of Lords has become the largest unelected upper house in the world – its functions need to be transferred to a smaller, fairly elected body. (Photo: BBC/ Getty Images)

The House of Lords’ continued existence stands as one of the most visible signs of the weaknesses in our democracy today. A combination of appointed and hereditary figures, overwhelmingly male and still including Anglican bishops – in a nation rapidly losing its religion – the Lords is entirely unfit for the role of a second chamber. Only a fully elected upper house can be acceptable in a country that prides itself as the mother of modern democracy: we have to reform ourselves before lecturing others on the benefits of representative government and the House of Lords is a good place to start.

Appointed upper houses are a rarity in the modern age; only around a dozen other nations have their laws scrutinised by a body unconnected to the will of the people. David Cameron’s resignation honours list showed exactly why most nations have had the sense to elect all of their representatives. Already having enormously expanded the Lords, Cameron decided his parting gift to a nation he has helped to drive apart would be peerages for his friends. Most notable was the appointment of The Hon. Alexander Andrew Macdonell Fraser to the upper house. His great achievement for the country? Giving £2.5 million to the Conservative Party and serving as its Treasurer – no doubt two exhausting challenges, but hardly a service to the nation.

This sort of cronyism is exactly why we have to fully elect our upper chamber. Rather than the expert body that the Lords’ defenders insists it is, a peerage is simply a way for supporters to be rewarded and favours returned. Patronage will always be used this way, of course: but when it affects the composition of our law making bodies, it is an affront to our democracy.

Equally, if our upper chamber is meant for those with expertise outside of politics, why do so many ex-MPs like Sebastian Coe, Peter Mandelson and Andrew Rawnsley get peerages after a short period of service? Blair was right to shrink the hereditary contingent down into double figures; in reality, no one should inherit the right to influence our laws.

Lastly, what position do the bishops have in settling legislation? Anglicanism may be the established faith but its importance diminishes with every passing year; if religious figures belong in our law making bodies, why should we only grant automatic membership to those drawn from one creed in one belief system?

In reality, the Lords is a bloated anachronism, one which Labour rightly promised to abolish in 2015. The Liberal Democrats went back on a similar pledge in government under Clegg, missing a key chance to fix our broken system. In a democracy, the government should only operate with a mandate from the governed; those who pass our laws must be responsible to those who have to follow them. Call it a Senate, call it a House of Lords, call it what you like: but elected it must be. No trade-offs, no half measures such as partial appointment; the upper house can only be democratic if it is wholly elected.

What model should our reformed upper chamber take? In terms of power, little should change, with the ability to amend laws but not block them being vital to the relationship between the two parts of our legislature. A three hundred member body, elected in thirds for fixed, six year terms (renewable only once) by region would ensure both fair representation and that the paramount mandate remained in the Commons – most of all if its electoral system was reformed as well. Instead of cronyism we could have transparent democracy, with the more collected and dry business of the upper chamber attracting experienced figures not needing to build a reputation for themselves so as to climb the greasy pole towards the premiership. If Britain were to adopt a fully regional form of federal government (hint, hint: we definitely should), then the upper chamber could follow the German style of the Bundestag, which ensures all parts of the country are listened to when laws are being made. Nonetheless, a directly or indirectly elected but reformed upper house could breathe some life back into our tired and ineffective system.

But do we even need a bicameral set of law making institutions? After all, around half of the world’s nations survive without an upper chamber, not to mention the domestic examples of Stormont, Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly. Whilst a single chamber could save some time in passing laws, the role of an amending body should not be underestimated. Britain is almost unique in lacking a codified constitution; our human rights, democratic system and justice processes need the buffer of an upper house, lest an incoming extreme government seek to abolish them in one fell swoop. At a national level, bicameralism is best; the role of the Lords is not the problem, but its selection most certainly is.

In 2016 there are few defences left for the continued existence of a body as old fashioned as the House of Lords. Designed in an era that believed in the divine right of kings and the hierarchy of aristocrats above commoners on the grounds of birth alone, it is long past its expiry date. Only one other nation – Iran – has religious figures in its upper house, and Britain is the only country where they are drawn from one denomination of a single faith. If we truly believe that representative government is best, then we have to consistently apply it to our own system. Instead of cronyism, inherited privilege and religious hierarchy, we could have a transparent system able to reward those who work for the people of this nation through re-election, rather than the unaccountability of appointment. Much work needs to be done to revitalise our democratic institutions; the Lords is a good place to start.

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