Lord (Paul) Tyler writes…Government is playing a dangerous game by resisting democratic reform of the Lords


This week the House of Lords is set to do one of the things it loves most: talking about itself. How wonderful it is; how learned are its members, but how beastly it is that anyone new is ever placed here. We will hear many wise heads opine that the Prime Minister is guilty of a gross abuse of process in appointing new peers this year, and that he is making the place “unsustainable”.  We will hear over and over that the “reputation of the House” is under threat. Some Peers seem to imagine that the public would view as entirely peachy an unelected chamber of Parliament predicated on patronage, just as long as only those who have already been appointed are the only ones ever allowed in.

LDV readers know all too well of the time and trouble spent by Lib Dems in government, attempting to secure comprehensive reform three years ago. The ranged vested interests of the other two parties conspired to block it, stopping more than a decade of progress toward that goal in its tracks. All of this year’s new Lib Peers committed themselves to supporting democratic reform if ever the opportunity is presented but, if we are honest, the prospects are now bleak.

So we are left with a dilemma. What now? Do we say “democratic reform or nothing”? That has usually been my position. I have always been sceptical that trimming at the edges of an absurdity achieves much beyond making it look just slightly less ridiculous, thus slowing the path to real reform. But some possibility of proper reform has been in prospect during the last 18 years, since Labour governments kept on talking a good talk, and the Coalition actually produced a Bill. We all hoped that being in a hung Parliament again this year would ease the way to making that final step of getting an elected Lords. Instead Cameron says he won’t even try to make a further attempt at securing a Bill.

We are now faced with five years of a government whose only contribution to the second chamber of Parliament will be to swell its size still further. No wonder many more of the public now view abolishing the Lords altogether as preferable to carrying on as we are.  As I put it in the chamber last week, the Government is playing a dangerous game by resisting all democratic reform in this way. They risk intense public pressure to abandon the Lords altogether. Absurd and indefensible though the composition of the Lords is, to abolish it would weaken Parliament as a whole and immeasurably strengthen the Executive, leaving “unelected dictatorships” to do their worst. Perhaps George Osborne hopes that is precisely what will happen.

So in the debate this week, I fully expect our Leader Jim Wallace to do full justice to our commitment to democratic reform. It is unwavering. But we will also have to engage with the various suggestions floating around for an interim solution. For example, the whole business would be slightly less rotten if Number 10 were removed from the process and the independents Appointments Commission given a bigger role. It would be slightly less rotten, too, if those appointed in future came in for limited terms. And no one can now seriously defend the preposterous system of by-elections which takes place whenever a hereditary peer dies, where often the electorate is smaller than the number of candidates standing. It is ridiculous and it has to stop.

And as we approach 2020, you can bet Lib Dems will once again be seeking to influence any government, any way we can, to end the system of party appointments altogether.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '15 - 3:23pm

    Yes. Limited terms would be better than life peerages for new appointments, not requiring incumbents to vote for their own abolition. David Steel has already tried to abolish the often farcical by-elections for hereditary peerages.

    Expertise should be at issue. Many professionals specialise while practising their careers, but the quality of their advice may deteriorate after they stop.

    Labour’s manifesto for 1997 is unfinished. Maybe they will return to it now.

  • Just abolish it full stop.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '15 - 4:29pm

    theakes 14th Sep ’15 – 4:03pm Reform the Commons as well, create a constitution and get it approved by a referendum, sort out the patchy devolution settlements, including Northern Ireland, elect by STV, …

  • John Tilley 15th Sep '15 - 7:51am

    Paul Tyler,
    I have some sympathy for what you have written, but no sympathy for the fancy dress, archaic pantomime that you and our other Liberal Democrat “Peers” prop up every day by your presence.

    Hopefully I can make it clear that I do not oppose Liberal Democrats in that place debating, putting forward our party’s views, scrutinising legislation and holding  government to account.
    But why oh why do you all put on the fancy dress, repeat the words of ridicules “oaths” of loyalty to inherited privilege  and sing the songs from the age of Gilbert and Sullivan?

    What happens to Liberal Democrats when they are scooped up into the finest club in town?   Why on earth do you all have to get photographed wearing ermine robes?    

     The particularly unflattering photograph of one of our lot was put out by Channel 4 News on a daily basis  last year when they were running a campaign against him.   
    The subtext was — “Look at this bloke in his ermine, he is just another one of those privileged twerps”.    In fact he is not a twerp at all but if you dress up to look like a twerp what can you expect from an unsympathetic media?

    Don’t do it.  Refuse to wear these ridiculous robes and stay looking like normal human beings.   

    Please stop behaving like and allowing yourselves to be dressed like our Conservative enemies.   If you think the second chamber is important to parliament then stop behaving as if it is a carnival where people have to dress up and perform strange ceremonies  as if the country is run from the chamber of some extravagant Masonic Lodge.

    Many people have already noticed over the last 15 years that Scotland, and Wales do fine without  a second chamber with a dressing-up box.    That lesson might just speed the end of The Lords.   

    I live in hope.

  • If the LibDem lords are so committed to reform, preferably along democratic lines, why is it that every time the topic comes up, it seems no problem at all for the media to find LibDem lords who sanctimoniously and self-aggrandisingly argue against democratic reform?

  • Michael Cole 15th Sep '15 - 2:35pm

    We must persist in trying to obtain the agreement and co-operation of Lab and Con. to reform the HoL, but as Paul Tyler says, “The ranged vested interests of the other two parties conspired to block it, stopping more than a decade of progress toward that goal in its tracks.” There is nothing to suggest that they will not continue to do so; indeed,
    “the prospects are now bleak.”

    It is now surely time to address the public directly by campaigning nationally for HoL reform, STV for all levels of elections and other constitutional matters. Many of our new members have joined us because they perceive the blatant unfairness of the Westminster elections and they need to be given the opportunity to do something about it. In the past such issues have been presented as having little interest for the electorate and that they are not relevant to the more important everyday matters. But now, particularly since the Westminster GE, there is a groundswell of opinion from Lib Dems and supporters of other parties that reform is needed.

    The present arrangements are not only unfair but they are a major cause of bad government. We must appeal directly to the public. There has never been a better time for an integrated national campaign on constitutional matters.

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