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Do we really want an elected House of Lords?

With all the fuss about “Cash for Honours” scandals affecting people such as Lord Levy and Tony Blair, it seems like the end of the line for appointed Lords. Does that make any difference though?

Before 1215 and the Magna Carta, the King of England ruled absolutely and the pyramidal feudal system supported him. However, the power of successive Kings weakened as they had more and more wars which needed more and more money they had to get from the Barons. They had a bit of a barney, King John lost the Crown Jewels in The Wash (well that’s his story, but it’s also quite likely he pawned them), and the least liked of the Plantagenets gave up a lot of power to the Lord Barons.

Many points of law in Anglo-Saxon countries are still today based on the words of the Magna Carta, so although it happened almost 800 years ago the effects are still with us. A lot of our rights and freedoms stem from this time.

A few years passed, and in the 17th Century the English Civil War again weakened the King’s power. He dissolved the Houses of Parliament – the only power he had over them – and until he had a few expensive wars to fight he didn’t call them back. When he finally did call them back, they had a barney over money again and went to war with each other. Parliament – in the name of the House of Commons this time – became stronger still. Since then the balance of power has remained fairly much in favour of the House of Commons.

Today it’s still the House of Commons that is in charge. Sure, the House of Lords gets to send legislation back to the Commons if they think it needs improving, but ultimately the House of Commons can force the legislation through. In a democracy, that’s probably a good thing: we can’t have a non-elected House of Lords telling the publicly elected Members of the House of Commons what they can and cannot do! After all, they’re the wrong sort of peer group.

The current Blairite Labour government in power at Westminster has been responsible for quite a lot of political change recently already, with the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland power-sharing agreement.

With no other home countries available for devolution, and the hot potato of devolution for England being not at all palatable for the Labour party, despite there being many good models showing it could reduce taxes and improve local communities, reforming the much despised (amongst Labour circles) House of Lords came up on the agenda. But if they got rid of it, what should they replace it with?

In many ways, a mixture of inherited peers (many of whom never, or only seldom, turned up to discuss issues or vote) and appointed grandees from the worlds of politics, science, industry and the Universities actually made a good go of things. They tended to think a little more about the effects of their actions than perhaps the lower house did. But the socialist wing of the Labour Party wanted blood and since blood sport was one of the first things they bloodthirstily attacked until it became extinct, when their blood lust next got up all they could focus on was the non-elected House of Lords.

Ten years have passed since the Labour lot got into power. Nearly ten years promising to ban the House of Lords. Initially they said they needed more Labour Lords in the House in order to bring the House down. Well, that was a joke. Suddenly all the grandees laboured to get into the House. They’re still all there, and there’s been no change. Until today.

Today they had a number of different votes on the issue. Favourite outcome was for an all elected upper house, with second choice being for 20% appointed, 80% elected. I wonder if they have thought this through though.

Will we end up with a system like the Americans have of a Senate which is more important than the lower House of Representatives? Or will we end up with a carbon copy of the lower house? The answer may end up being all about money – or who has control over it, just like all the other major political changes of the last 1,000 years. The cash for questions affair has certainly made it more distasteful to have appointees Lording it over the rest of us. And for that we have to thank the Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, for raising the issue. Imagine, his biggest impact in politics may not be one that affects Scotland as much as it does England!

But back to the House. My view would be to have a fully elected House elected by Proportional Representation (PR) so that the views represented there contined to be less partisan than the lower house, with a broader range of views, opinions and experiences to draw on when needed.

The White paper on this does suggest some form of PR, with party lists giving the names of those people the party wanted to be elected, in order of popularity. No, this doesn’t mean the ones getting the biggest votes get in. With PR you usually vote for a party, plus some individuals – actually that gives exactly the same result as we have now, with so called “safe seats” on both sides of the political divide always voting en masse for the same party.

Each list would have more names on than could be elected, and the number from each party finally successful would depend on how popular that party was as a whole. Even a party with just 10% or less of the vote could get significant list members elected. It’s actually quite a fair system: how else could the Independence Party have been elected to their MEP seats?

Worst case scenario would be the 80% elected, 20% appointed system also voted for today, albeit with a lower majority. That is rather like the system we introduced into Zimbabwe under Lord Carrington and Maggie Thatcher, and we all know where that led – to a dictatorship that cannot be voted out because the ruling party controls the crucial 20%.

Next week there’ll be another vote on it all – this time in the Lords themselves. Will they vote themselves out of existence? Hmm. Perhaps it’ll all depend on the money again…

The irony is that while the government wants to change the House of Lords to suit themselves (they were pushing for a 50% elected, 50% appointed split; maybe they don’t mind a few greasy salesmen doling out titles to campaign funders) they may end up with more of what they wished for than they wanted – 100% elected. Not only might that have a significant effect on party funding, it might also create political obstacles to the House of Commons getting its own way. As for electoral districts, these will probably look a bit like the current electoral districts for the European Parliament.

We’ll know more next week, though I’m sure today’s massive majority of 238 in favour of the Upper House being 100% elected will take some overturning in the Lords.

More info:

At-a-glance: Lords reform
Timeline: The House of Lords
Elect the Lords pressure group
Lord’s Reform Day pressure group

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