Last week, the Government published plans for a reformed House of Lords. Explaining the principle behind a mainly elected upper chamber, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: “at the end of the day this just comes down to a really, really simple idea; and it’s called democracy”.
Over the next three elections, the Government proposes, the House of Lords will reassemble as a chamber in which 80 per cent of its members will be elected; the remaining 20 per cent will be chosen by an Appointments Commission. The new ‘lords’ (although they won’t be allowed to call themselves that) will be restricted to serving single terms of fifteen years. They will be elected via Proportional Representation into seats covering whole regions – bigger than the constituencies covered by MPs in the House of Commons.
On the surface, Clegg looks well positioned to push through what could well be the defining legacy of the Lib Dems’ time in government. The public agree with Nick; 76 per cent support reforming the upper chamber, which, as YouGov President, Peter Kellner rightly points out, “defies every democratic principle”. The parties agree with Nick; all three leaders support reform; all three included it in their manifesto and all three are pressuring their own MPs to back change. The Prime Minister is reported to have told Clegg that he’ll do everything in his power to deliver House of Lords reform. For more than a century, politicians have pursued the same goal and failed. It is “time to make progress”, insisted David Cameron.
A little deeper, and Clegg faces a slow, savage slugging match. No. 10 sources are reported as saying they expect “blood on the walls, floor and ceiling” in the form of a fierce rebellion from backbench Tories, who will viciously defend the status quo, and Labour opportunists, homing in on a perfect opportunity to derail the Coalition. Some Conservative backbenchers have described the plans as a “constitutional monstrosity”; others have said they will resign over the issue. News outlets report that the very timetabling of debate could be sabotaged, derailing any hopes (if there ever were any) of a clean, quick win.
Among the public, attitudes are actually a little more nuanced than statistics suggest. Yes, the majority of people care about an elected lords, but – as I’ve written on these pages before – they don’t care very much – less than a fifth believe it is an urgent matter right now. Moreover, while Clegg is insisting reform is premised on the principle of democracy, most of the public think they should have a say in the matter – only a quarter think that change should be enacted without a public vote. The prospect of reform costing us money in an age of austerity is another turn off. Finally, as Kellner says, come polling day, and people will become much more interested in details than they are now. Indeed, scrutinise the small print of Clegg’s plans, and a real risk emerges – that, in pursuit of democracy, an elected upper chamber will be both more powerful, and, in the eyes of many voters, more legitimate than the current Commons.
First, newly elected members of the House of Lords would serve longer terms than their Commons counterparts, allowing them more freedom to pursue their own agenda without being held to account by voters. Second, they would represent larger areas – and most likely more people – than MPs in the lower chamber. Third, they would be elected via the PR system. At the moment, MPs – including Nick Clegg, of course – are elected via the First Past The Post system – the “choice of dinosaurs”, according to Clegg. There is not space here to explain in great detail why so many – including this author – see PR as more democratic than the current system, but the risk remains that members of an elected upper chamber could claim a more legitimate right to be there than MPs like Clegg and Cameron. This is, in all probability, a key goal of Clegg’s. After the landslide ‘no-to-AV’ (Alternative Vote – or PR-‘lite’) last year, embedding PR within the House of Lords could well reignite debate about introducing it to the House of Commons.
Nick Clegg should be applauded; his plans to abolish the House of Lords throw up some much-needed questions about the state of our democracy. But, when it comes to Lords reform, the biggest question of all is one that few are asking: why have a House of Lords at all?
Category Archives: Constitutional reform
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.