Opinion: The opportunity for Lords Reform must be taken

In 1997 the Labour Party manifesto outlined that under a Labour government the House of Lords would be reformed so that the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute…. It was clear that change appeared to be on the agenda and the House of Lords Act 1999 provided changes to the rights of Hereditary Peers, removing the right for members to inherit their seats. This was achieved via a compromise which ensured 92 hereditary peers would remain in the House on an interim basis.

Although these were necessary baby steps, it was not until after the 2001 General Election that a public consultation on Lords Reform took place. Over 1,000 people took part and there was much debate sparked in Parliament. However, even after all this buzz there were no concrete measures taken to reform the House of Lords. Even when a vote was put to Parliament in 2003, the Commons and the Lords voted to ensure that any Peers would be Appointed and not directly Elected. To show how overdue Lords Reform is you only need to recognise how long it has been talked about. Even as far as back as 1911, under the Parliament Act, the Liberal Party underlined a need for reform and that the Second Chamber itself should be “constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis“. Although it was noted that such changes could not be achieved with any great immediacy, would I not be right in saying that 100 years is more than long enough for the sort of reform talked about by the Liberals in 1911?

Without stating the obvious, it does not take much of a mind to realise that the political landscape is very different to 1997, let alone 1911. But if now is not the best opportunity for Lords Reform, that actually shakes up Parliament, then when is? Public trust in politics is not in great shape and we need to give the electorate a lifeline to show that finally the men and women behind the suits that stand on a platform of “democracy” are actually listening. The Coalition agreement is the first step. It outlines that there are intentions to work towards a mainly, or wholly, elected Upper Chamber. My take is that although there is a desire to see a fully elected House of Lords, we should not turn away from the opportunity to see a “mainly” elected Upper Chamber. As Nick said recently, 80% is better than 0%. It must not be ignored that there will be great opposition to this. Even when looking at the 1997 Labour manifesto, on the issue of Lords reform, the party had to reiterate that they were opposed to abolishing the monarchy! To think that such ridiculous claims have to be refuted, it is worrying that Lords Reforms may well be halted by ludicrous arguments and the overhanging worry that the Lords themselves may oppose such moves. But this is no reason to back down. If the case is put clearly and loudly, the people will unite behind this. The Prime Minister is said to have given his backing so it seems that there is only a matter of time. Quite frankly, we owe it to the electorate if we wish to uphold the foundations of a liberal democracy.

*Josh Dixon is a member of Liberal Youth and blogs at Liberal Insight

* Joshua Dixon is Chair of Hillingdon Lib Dems, and Membership Development Officer for the Social Liberal Forum

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8 Comments

  • I agree with the substance of this thread. I believe that Labour should have put in place a date by which all hereditaries should have been removed and replaced by elected peers. I also believe that the House of Lords should be re-named the House of Peers: that alongside the establishmenty of an English parliament dealing purely with English matters, the House of Peers should become a federal chamber representing all countries of the United Kingdom proportionate to their population (thus addressing the” West Lothian question”; that all “peers” should be elected by P.R. with a list and that elections of one third of the members of the House of Peers should take place every two years giving the first third elected under such a system a 6 year tenure before having to submit themselves again for election. Elections for the first third should begin as soon as possible so that by the end of 6 years all of the hereditaries should have been flushed out of the chamber. These are my personal views, I stress.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Dec '11 - 5:52pm

    The 1999 changes were often called HoL Reform Stage 1. To say there was no reform then is nonsense – the Lords now is a very different chamber from what it was prior to 1999. HoL Reform Stage 2, or “completing the reform” is what has not taken place.

    It’s best not to get hung up on the Hereds now. The deal that 92 should stay was explicitly for the period in the “interim House” (hence the LD “interim peers’ panel”) – until Stage 2 Reform took place.

    The big argument now is election or appointment. There is a very big majority in the Lords for appointment, and almost certainly a smaller majority in the Commons too (on a free vote).

    The appointed Lords is a bastion of the Establishment in this country and the Establishment will mobilise. Who imagines that Cameron will stand in the way of the fury of his backbenches when they are mounted and charging? We have seen it over AV and Europe – he is a weak coward who will cave in (that is assuming he himself believes in an elected Lords). It will happen again and the Parliament Act is very unlikely to be used (assuming he can get a majority each time in the Commons when it goes back mangled and defeated from the Lords).

    I have previously voted for a 100% elected House and will continue to do so whenever I am able. But this issue risks destroying the usefulness of this Parliament for months on end, and to put our party on the line on this issue may not be politically wise.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Allen 31st Dec '11 - 2:06pm

    The below is copied from the BBC website and describes Vernon Bogdanor’s view that Lords reform could be a national disaster, causing the kind of gridlock we see in the US. If an expert like Bogdanor is worried, then I’m worried. Quote follows:

    Prof Bogdanor, a research professor at Kings College London, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that peers’ powers were currently limited to delaying bills for one parliamentary session – which were only used rarely because they “lacked the legitimacy provided by popular election”.

    But if they were elected – the Lords could claim its own mandate and “would be much more likely to use its powers”.

    “It can therefore be predicted, I think, with some certainty, that an elected upper house would be much more powerful in practice than the current House of Lords and that would make Britain more difficult to govern.

    “The outcome could well be gridlock, such as has occurred in countries like Australia, which has a directly elected upper house, and the United States.

    “We don’t have a formal constitution, we have no formal provision for how to deal with gridlock, and unlike Australia we cannot dissolve the upper house – how would a deadlock be broken?”

  • David Allen 1st Jan '12 - 10:01pm

    “The Commons will always have legitimacy over the Senate because… the Commons will always be more recently fully elected.”

    Or because the 20% appointed theoretically reduces the legitimacy, or because a 15 year term means less responsiveness to the electorate, or because traditionally the old HoL was subservient to the Commons, so it follows that the new HoL will also be, or for a host of theoretical reasons.

    Now suppose that the Republican Tea Party control the HoL, and the PM, Cabinet and Commons desperately need to increases taxes. Will the Tea Party say “oh OK, we don’t have real legitimacy, so we won’t use the powers we have at our disposal to block the tax rise”? Or will they say “Not over our dead body”?

    Wake up and smell the coffee. The risk is real. It’s not worth it!

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