Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Do We Need To Be Uneasy About Lords’ Refom?

I rarely disagree with Polly Toynbee, and I’m not sure even that I completely disagree with her latest ‘rant’ about the reform of the House of Lords.
But I am uneasy about it.

Does the Lords needs reforming?
To some degree, reform of the House of Lords is hard to oppose (which I suppose is why politicians try to earn a few easy Brownie points by suggesting it).
Indeed, in this day and age, who can really support a system which gives twelve bishops such prominence when so few people actually agree or even care what the CofE believes?
And in a democracy, is it not arguable that we ought to hound out in disgrace our hereditary peers, who are there simply because their ancestors killed or oppressed ours (and stole their land, labour and product)?

The tendency of successive Prime Ministers to ‘pack’ the Lords with politically like-minded peers is another problem – even if it has resulted in some kind of unwieldy, overweight balance.
And surely nobody can countenance the appointment of a life-peer because they gave large donations to a particular political party?

Do we really want new second chamber?
So, OK, there are abuses to be reformed – wrongs to be righted, Mrs Toynbee.

However, as you know, what is being suggested is not fine-tuning … not ‘tinkering at the edges’ to do away with some of the incongruities.
You know as well as I do that what is being suggested is REPLACING the House of Lords with an elected upper chamber.
And that is where I begin to quibble.

I am left-wing in my views.  I despise privilege and patronage.
But even I concede the drawbacks of an elected upper chamber over the existing House of Lords.

When are these ‘senators’ going to be elected?
At the same time as the Commons?  All that will produce is a mirror image of the Commons.  So what would be the point – the Commons will make ideological laws, the upper chamber will agree. 
But what will happen if we hold the elections at different times – during an administration when it is going through its usual period of unpopularity?  What that will produce is an upper chamber diametrically opposed to the Commons … and we will be reduced to the American system of warring houses.  Throw in a quiver of elected mayors and we really will have created a system capable of total coagulation. 

At the moment we have one House, elected by the people, truly able to claim that they are the representatives of the nation.  That is why, when it comes to it, the Commons can simply ignore the House of Lords (and rightly so).  But what is going to happen when we have two elected chambers, both of which can validly claim to be the people’s representative body?
I’ll tell you what – deadlock.
Stand-offs, then discussions, then brinkmanship, then squalid compromise.
Think US budget … coming soon to a constitution near you.

A plague on both your houses
Most of all, what possible reason have we to want MORE elected members?
It is typical of the disconnection of our politicians that – faced with a world in which politicians are universally distrusted and despised – they could come up with a solution for reform which involves … more politicians!

More elections – more hype – more expense (and expenses) – more party political posturing – and a lucrative political career for a whole host of politicians who were not quite good enough to be selected for a constituency. 
Quite frankly I am horrified at the prospect, and I suspect most people who give a damn will be too.
People do not want more politics; they want effective politics.

We are told that almost two-thirds of the people want Lords’ reform.
Don’t fool yourself. Most people just want a government under which they will be able to pay their bills and feed their family.
They do not give a damn about the constitutional arrangements for an upper chamber.

But, no, our politicians – whilst they are cutting Housing Benefit, Disability Living Allowance, Legal Aid, public sector pensions and a whole load of other things that make the difference between penury and survival – are openly proposing that we PAY for a referendum on Lords' reform.  

Get real.

A House of Michael Portillos, please

The greatest advert for the House of Lords, imho, is Michael Portillo (even though he isn't a lord).
Mr Portillo, you will remember, was a Thatcherite hit-man. People hated him – the biggest cheer of the 1997 election was when Mr Portillo lost his seat.

But, post-career, when you see him now on BBC This Week, is he not a changed beast?  His politics are arguably left-wing.  His passion is train lines.  His demeanour is thoughtful and gentle – he does not need to ‘win’.  He is popular and – that rare thing – he is trusted … because he is a post-politician.
So he can afford to be magnanimous.

THAT is what we need in the Lords.  Politicians and patricians who have served with distinction, and who now don’t care, need or wish to ‘get on’, but will share their thoughts and experience without fear or favour.
We need a second chamber which will vet and proof the Commons’ legislation, yet which will not see itself as a rival legislature … and which will ‘roll over’ if the Commons insists.

Funnily enough, the proposals to reform the Lords come at a time when we are as near to this being the case as ever I can remember.
Faced with the Tories’ austerity measures, the Lords filed a string of amendments and criticisms.  They were reflective and constructive attempts to prevent anomalies. They were an attempt to protect the vulnerable.  And, by contrast, it was the Commons who came out of it all looking right-wing, ideological and oppressive.

It could be argued that – just when it is doing its job properly – now is the LAST time we should be changing the Lords.


  1. The answer lies in reform of the HOC and in the electoral voting system. We need rid of the FPTP voting system. To ensure that the legislation posed to the HOL is done on a much more inclusive basis. It will also change our relationship with the world. Our Gov. has always taken blood and treasure from the less well off. Always created pathways for the wealthy to further line their pockets. This we are told to create jobs? (where are they. Imagine not having to spend £70 billion now and in its life £120 billion, the conservative estimate, for the Trident nuclear weapons "update" Imagine how that money could be used to change our lives. Think Sweden, think the Scandinavians we need to be more like them. Looking inwards to save our own societies instead of looking outwards to "save" or "liberate" everybody else's. Great Blog again btw.

  2. And Siobhain McDonagh MP agrees: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/04/26/electing-the-lords-will-lead-to-weak-government/