The British constitution is primarily the result of accident or, at best, short-term political compromise. From the existence of a Prime Minister to the electoral system, chances are some aristocrat you’ve never heard of blundered across it by accident a couple of centuries ago. The current bill to reform the House of Lords continues this unfortunate tradition.
I am almost alone in the Lib Dems in opposing an elected second chamber. As it stands, the bill is not about to make me change my mind.
The bill proposes an electoral system which uses list PR. This system puts powers over candidates, and hence who is elected, squarely in the hands of party leaders. Moreover, the bill has list PR electing professional politicians for fifteen-year terms. Those elected in 1997 would only just come up for re-election in 2012. Except they wouldn’t, because according to this bill they cannot be re-elected.
What this bill will create therefore are politicians who don’t represent a constituency, chosen by central party machines, in office for fifteen years with no reason to worry about getting re-elected. True, list PR is the most proportional system. Is total proportionality really a price worth paying for politicians like these?
Not that we will know what they will be called. The bill keeps the second chamber as ‘the House of Lords’. I can’t help feeling we can do better. Even ‘Senate’ is somewhat derivative. There ought at the very least to be a public consultation on the matter, rather than leaving it to a few hours of debate in a Select Committee.
Then there is the clause reducing the number of bishops from 24 to 12. Why 12? If the bill had been better thought through, the proposed number of bishops would presumably reflect their usefulness and importance in passing legislation. (And therefore be zero, you might well be thinking.) But instead, the number of bishops has simply been halved- a quite clear indication the decision was made arbitrarily. Good as it is to reduce the number of bishops, it is frankly irresponsible for Government policy to be made in this fashion.
Nick Clegg believes this bill will lead to something better. Given how hard it has been to reform the Lords historically, we cannot be sure of that. And even if we could, it remains the case that the bill could be made a lot better, very easily, now.
There are still nearly three years of this Parliament. More has been done in much less time. Let’s take the bill back to the drawing board and make it better. Then maybe- just maybe- we might actually pass it.
* Robin McGhee is a Liberal Democrat member in Oxford.