House of Lords Reform? Meh

Earlier this week, The Guardian splashed on the results of a new YouGov poll, which showed that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords – a key policy favoured by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. The poll, commissioned by Unlock Democracy, revealed that just 5% of the public favour the status quo – a fully appointed second chamber.

The Guardian hailed the results as a ‘boost’ (and a much-needed one; Clegg’s party is polling at a woeful 9% – neck and neck with the UK Independence Party) for the Lib Dem leader. For many Lib Dems, battered from the rise in tuition fees for university students, bruised from losing a previous referendum on changing the voting system in the UK, reform of the House of Lords is one of the few flagship Lib Dem policies remaining intact, if not yet realised.

However, scratch beneath the surface and this ‘boost’ is more of a bump, if that; the key difference being not how many people support reform, but how much do they care? In an article for The Observer, Nadhim Zahawi, who co-founded and is a former CEO of YouGov, drew attention to private polling that the number of people who thought House of Lords should the main priority for this government over the next year: 0.

The president of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, has acknowledged that House of Lords reform isn’t seen by voters as a” top campaigning issue”. Elsewhere, respected commentators like John Humphrys have flagged the dangers of the Government being seen as spending considerable effort on something many people feel doesn’t actually matter. At a time when over two and a half million people are unemployed and with Britain in a double-dip recession, which economists warn could last until summer, the prospect of spending £100 million on a referendum – and even more if actual reform is to be brought about – won’t have people rushing to the ballot box or picking up placards.

There are good arguments for and against reforming the upper chamber. Many are opposed to the very principle of an unelected House of Parliament – a practice present in only 15 other countries worldwide. Others are concerned that an elected second house would result in US senate-style gridlock, and highlight the good – if mostly invisible – work of peers like Jane Campell and Dee Doocey in opposing the Government’s regressive welfare and legal aid cuts. Some like Polly Toynbee have called for the abolition of the House altogether.

Now is certainly not a good time to press on with a reform that is not a priority for voters. But, as Steve Richards rightly points out, ‘now’ is no better or worse than any other. With the public behind him (if not very strongly), Nick Clegg has a chance to push through on a reform that will change the very make up of British democracy. Considering that so many people support the policy, but so few (9%) support his party, it is a chance he will almost certainly never have again.

What do you think? Should the House of Lords be reformed? Is it a priority for Government? Join the debate and leave your comments below.

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About eugenetgrant

I work as a Public Policy Advisor on Financial Inclusion, Poverty and Welfare, for a disability charity. Prior to that, I worked at the independent think tank Demos. I have written for a variety of online and in print publications, including the Social Policy Association, Progress Online, Disability Now, Labour Uncut, Anthonypainter.co.uk and Touchstone. I am available for articles and comment pieces on disability issues, British politics and current affairs. My email is eugenetgrant at googlemail dot com. Please feel free to get in touch. View all posts by eugenetgrant

4 responses to “House of Lords Reform? Meh

  • steve4319

    Another example of wilfully ignoring the significant number of Lib Dem polices which have made it into gov’t. Off the top of my head I would have thought it was worth mentioning 1) Pulling the poorest out of paying income tax – lifting the lower limit to 10,000 2) Introducing the Pupil Premium targeting resources at the poorest children 3) Creating the first ever Green investment bank 4) Increasing the number of apprenticeships in 2011 by 50% on 2010 5) Restoring the link between pensions and earnings (and putting in place that “triple lock” 6) Cutting the period of detention without trial to 14 days

    The LDs claim to have implemented 75% of their manifesto, which if true, is quite a result for a party that did so badly at the last election.

    The question is why does the public not know this?

    I am no lover of the LDs in this gov’t but you have to give credit where it is deserved (and attack where needed as well).

    Personally, I am passionate about the need to move from what we have today. I feel incredibly let down by Labour’s inability (despite promises) to act on this issue in 13 years of massive majorities. Robin Cook’s diaries are very interesting in terms of the internal argument around this issue within Labour. If Labour was to take power tomorrow I have no reason to believe that the same internal power dynamic would not cripple the party into inaction again.

    So in short…I think 1) the LDs are doing a better job than the public is giving them credit for and this is not the only thing LDs have left and 2) Labour would probably not even making these modest steps if they were in the same position.

  • eugenetgrant

    In terms of policies, 1) yes – very signigicant (although it could be suggested that reversing the rise in VAT would have had a much better effect on low income families). The others are less visible: £10,000 tax break; Lords reform; AV referendum and tuition fees are, I would argue, probably the most publicly visible LD policies. Credit where credit is due, for sure, but, as you say, ‘why do the public not know about this’? Behind the scenes, the Lib Dems may be doing some very good things and mitigating some of the worst of Tory reforms. But this needs to become much more visible if they are to rise from 9% and ever have a hope of getting into Government again… HOL reform would be an incredible legacy – one which history would probably look very kindly on. But right now, it’s understandable if people see it as something they agree with, but aren’t too fussed about.

  • Tom Shakespeare

    House of Lords reform has been waiting around for ages. Centuries. There is never a good time, because of course there are always more pressing priorities, and always will be. But I would imagine that a modern government can do more than one thing at the same time, and if the Lib Dems don’t manage to get this one through, it’s hardly to see what the point of them is. I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country which has an appointed second chamber. The arguments about the threat to Commons authority are easily remedied. Get a move on!

  • eugenetgrant

    They should definitely remove bishops and hereditary peers, but do you not think we’d just replicate the House of Commons? Why not abolish it completely like Toynbee suggested? And why, when you can run to be an MP and – in some places – an elected mayor, would you run to be a Lord? Would you not diminish the diversity of experience that comes with peers who’ve spent their lives doing ‘real’ jobs, as opposed to many MPs who simply go through the PPE/Oxbridge – think tank – SpAd – MP route?

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