Opinion: Anti-reform peers shame our party

I confess. I am usually a bit of a loyalist. I believe the time I invest campaigning for the Liberal Democrats is best spent publicising our good ideas and our opponents’ bad ideas, rather than picking fights with fellow party members. On Lords reform however I feel forced to engage in an internecine war of words with some of our peers.

The Times newspaper recently commissioned a poll of members of the upper house to gauge their views on reform. It’s no surprise of course that our coalition colleagues, the Tories, are dead set against anything as vulgar as democracy creeping into the Lords; a solid 90% of Tory peers oppose a fully or mainly elected Lords. Equally it comes as no surprise that Britain’s other big conservative party – Labour – is also solidly against reform, with almost three-quarters of their peers opposing democracy.

What surprises me however is our own peers’ lukewarm level of support for reform. Whilst a majority (54%) of Lib Dem peers want a fully or mainly elected Lords, it is no thumping majority.

I wrote a letter recently that was published in Liberal Democrat News in response to one from Lib Dem peer Lord Lee of Trafford. At the time I thought him amongst surely no more than a handful of anti-reform Lib Dems. Then I read the findings of The Times poll and now realise he spoke for rather a lot of them.

To say I am disappointed by these numbers is an understatement. Whilst a keen supporter of minority rights, I will say that as far as I am concerned the 46% of Lib Dem peers who oppose even a “mainly” elected upper chamber shame our party. The clue is in the name; we are the Liberal Democrats.

One of the first tasks in confronting an opposing point-of-view is to understand it. To be frank however I am genuinely unable to comprehend how any reasonable person can oppose the simple principle that the people should elect those who govern them, and those who govern them should either have a limited period of time in office or should be required regularly to present themselves before the electorate for re-endorsement.

Whatever else we might achieve as a part of the Coalition Government, if this Parliament draws to a close without any meaningful piece of political reform passed, I will feel at least some sense of failure. We've been banging on about this stuff for donkey's years. If even we cannot update our rotten, outdated, outmoded constitution then who can?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Dinti Batstone 1st Jun '11 - 2:13pm

    Well said Stuart!

  • I am genuinely unable to comprehend how any reasonable person can oppose the simple principle that the people should elect those who govern them, and those who govern them should either have a limited period of time in office or should be required regularly to present themselves before the electorate for re-endorsement.

    One of the strengths of the Lords is that they don’t have to pander to large business interests such as Murdoch et al in order to get re-elected. One has only to look across the pond to see how a system that looks good on paper ends up rotten to the core.

  • First paragraph of my reply should have been a quotation. Where’s the “preview” button?!

  • Roger Roberts 1st Jun '11 - 4:47pm

    Howv thorough was the Times survey ? I’m still waiting for my survey form !

  • Stuart Bonar 1st Jun '11 - 5:01pm

    @Roger – well, if the low level of support for an elected Lords amongst Lib Dem peers is down to a dodgy Times poll then that’ll make me a lot happier! And no offence is intended for the majority of Lib Dem peers who are standing up for the right thing.
    @Dinti – thank you.
    @Dane – well, I guess that’s one motive 🙂
    @Hamish – I guess we just disagree – you don’t like democratic government, I do.
    @jedibeeftrix – you make a more illuminating comment than I suspect you intended; we’re talking here about the simple principle that those who govern us should be selected by us; is that really so outlandish, so otherworldly, so – to use your word – pointy-headed?

  • George Morris 1st Jun '11 - 5:12pm

    Excellent piece. Completely agree. I was absolutely horrified to find that our own parliamentarians don’t back Liberal Democrat policies. Or, it seems, democracy.

  • Just a thought, if any of those against reform are newly installed peers this is a huge error by the Party as this should have been checked prior to nomination..

  • David Allen 1st Jun '11 - 6:35pm

    In principle of course you’re right. However, all three parties are now dominated by career politicians who want a nice comfy retrirement home. That’s why they all laughed at Cleggie when he came forward, twirling his trusty blade and tilting at his latest windmill. That’s why last time Lords reform came up, the Commons staged that clever charade with the multiple different reform options, so that lots of MPs could vote for one of the progressive options, and yet somehow, none of them actually got chosen.

    Once upon a time, we were part of the solution. Nowadays, i fear, we’re mainly part of the problem.

  • Stuart, while I completely agree with you ( and am disgusted by our peers’ attitude and hoping fervently it was just a dodgy Times survey…) I think we do need to acknowledge the other side of the argument.

    The advantage of appointed peers is that, while they obviously have to scratch backs in order to get in, once they’re there they don’t have to pander to populism and the media to get re-elected, so they can offer opinions based solely on conscience and expertise. That’s why I actually like the proposed 15-year term because that gives the elected peers breathing space where they don’t have to worry about Sun / Daily Mail heDlines and can get on with scrutiny in peace.

    The more serious objection is that an elected upper house – especially if elected by a more democratic system than the ridiculous FPTP – could legitimately claim to bemore representative of the public’s will than the Commons, potentially leading to a big argument / confusion over which house should have final say.

    I think these arguments are weaker than the ones in favour of a democratic upper house but I can see where they’re coming from. The concern that an elected Lords could legitimately challenge the primacy of the Commons is valid – although to address that problem I don’t see why we can’t just scrap the damn Lords altogether…

  • Stuart Bonar 1st Jun '11 - 8:41pm

    @George Morris – Thanks for the support.
    @jedibeeftrix – Your thesis is that Government shld only do things if they are at the top of the list of issues of importance to the electorate; so, the Labour Government did the right thing, did it, to not worry about bank regulation prior to the banking collapse? After all, no voters were raising it on the doorstep. In my experience, voters never ask about care for children in the care of the state; should we not bother worrying about them? There is more to Government than simply reading the polls and chasing headlines.
    @Steve Way – Agreed, but of course part of the problem with the Lords is that once they’re in, that’s it (exhibit A: Lord Taylor of Warwick; exhibit B: Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare).
    @David Allen – You may be right, sadly.
    @Catherine – Perhaps I am being a little un-generous, but then I feel like being so on this issue. My substantive response to you would be to say that pandering to populism is, I am afraid, one definition of democracy; the way to deal with that is through things like the Human Rights Act, and so on, to ensure minorities and others are protected from the brute will of the majority. On the challenge to the Commons argument, I don’t see the Mayor of London (whose personal mandate is bigger than anyone else’s) claiming to be able to contradict the will of the Commons, or elected councils disobeying the laws that govern them on the basis that they too are elected. We could even – brace yourself – have a written constitution that spells out the powers of each house.

  • The vast majority of Lib Dem peers are essentially nominated on the recommendation of our party. I.E. they represent the party, they do not represent themselves. And whilst I’m happy for them to review the proposals, work out problems, and even improve the detail, their own opinions on whether or not the Lords should be an elected house, (a Lib Dem manifesto promise approved by conference,) are irrelevant, I don’t want to hear it. Get on with the job you were appointed to do and pass the damn legislation.

  • Roger Roberts 2nd Jun '11 - 6:34am

    August 18 2011 is the centenary of the Parliament Act. I enquired whether there was to be a commemoration/celebration. This was rejected by the Leader of the House – Lord Strathclyde – who clearly thought this hundred year old Act was not a good thing at all !
    Who is to lead in the Lords on the new 2011 Bill ? right first time – the same Lord Strathclyde !! To win support for any measure we need leadership from those wsho actually believe in what they propose.

  • Whatever we or anyone else thinks, there is no doubt that decision on this will be bulldozed through like everything else.

    We have much higher priorities than this – get on with with them!

  • Stuart Bonar 2nd Jun '11 - 10:53am

    @David – well said… and I think this is in tune with others, perhaps more critical, who say this is a distraction; well, given that all three parties proposed it in their manifestos, getting it through shouldn’t be a problem and won’t therefore be a distraction, should it?
    @Roger – yes, it’s just a shame that a tri-party manifesto commitment doesn’t seem enough for some peers. Please keep up the good work!
    @Rebekah – we do have other priorities, but as a Lib Dem I think fixing our rotten politics is important.
    @jedibeeftrix & @Dane – you both make good points as to how the electoral system weakens the ‘challenge to the Commons’ argument, so thanks for that.

  • Heaven forbid people speak their minds and openly oppose their party! Democracy is about more than elections and manifestos.

  • Freedom from 2nd Jun '11 - 3:01pm

    While I don’t disagree with some of the points made here, I find the blithe assumption from the author (and most other commenters) that democracy and liberalism are easy bedfellows quite alarming. Have none of you ever heard of the tyranny of the majority?

    There are many, many problems with the current Lords. But the simple fact is that the unreformed, unelected Lords played a key role in defeating many of Labour’s most illiberal legislative follies: ID cards, 42 day detention, etc. The fact is that protection of the rights of the individual and of minorities from the over-mighty state often comes into conflict with the wishes of majority, particularly at times of mass panic or fear. I have serious doubts about whether a 100% elected Lords would have voted so overwhelmingly against Blair’s illiberal legislation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 – the Commons didn’t after all.

    It doesn’t mean the current system is right – far from it. I believe that the Lords needs be reformed. But proposals to move to a directly elected chamber (under any system, with whatever safeguards) without a wider review addressing the lack of checks and balances in our system (not least that our Executive automatically has a majority in the Legislature) are seriously worrying, if you ask me.

  • Stuart Bonar 2nd Jun '11 - 7:30pm

    @Charles – sure, democracy is more than voting, but democracy does not exist without voting.
    @freedom from – I don’t disagree with you that we need more than just democracy, but this was a focussed post about the anti-democratic views of some of our peers, not an exhaustive personal manifesto… the Human Rights Act is part of the answer to what you raise, I’d also like to see a written constitution too.

  • Daniel Henry 3rd Jun '11 - 12:48am

    “Freedom from”, the elected Lords would be 20% crossbenchers and the rest would be divided proportionally so no single party would have full control. Blair passed his stuff through the commons due to leading a party with a huge majority. It would be almost impossible for a party to get such a majority in a Lords elected under PR, especially as 20% are reserved as crossbenchers.

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