Opinion: Don’t reform the House of Lords; scrap it

After the humiliating defeat of the AV referendum, a system to which no party aspired to before the General Election, and the disastrous rout of elected Lib Dems in Scotland and England, serious questions must be asked about the future direction of the party and its place in the coalition government.

In order to reclaim the trust of the British electorate, we need to be bold and radical, and we must speak up for the aspirations of the British people, particularly the disillusioned young; the Facebook generation, who are the future of our democracy. Despite Nick Clegg’s promise of a ‘New Politics’, the majority of the electorate feel let down and betrayed by our politicians and our political system. AV was not the answer, and never will be. We never should have campaigned for this ‘miserable little compromise’.

The future of politics, not just in the UK but globally, as the ‘Arab Spring’ proves, is in ‘People Power’. Our political system is broken; the Liberal Democrats have argued this for many years. But the debates that were relevant 100 years ago may no longer be relevant. I have said this before, but we need a root and branch review of democracy in this country, which involves everyone, not just the political classes. We must lead the world for democratic development as we have in the past.

Despite losing the AV referendum, the prospect of House of Lords reform is still very much alive, and may go ahead. But would a fully elected House of Lords really inspire the new generation of voters and cure all the ills of our political system? The simple answer is no. More elections for more elected politicians would simply lead to more apathy and more of the same.

We need radical change. When it comes to issues that matter to people, there is no apathy of interest. The apathy lies in the trust of the political classes to do the right thing or truly represent the consensus view of the country. That is why fewer and fewer people vote in each election.

We are proposing to have an elected House of Lords, but I will go one step further. I propose that we scrap it altogether. Instead, the second chamber of our Parliament should be ‘The People’. The House of Commons in its current form has an important role in drafting and debating legislation and the House of Lords provides important scrutiny.

But why do we need unelected Lords, or even elected Lords, to scrutinise legislation? In our new digital age, when Wikipedia has made every other encyclopaedia irrelevant and the likes of Facebook and Twitter are revolutionising how people interact between borders, it would be patronising and insulting to say that ordinary people who take an interest in politics are not as capable as an unelected Lords as scrutinising legislation passed by the commons.

A panel of the People, which would include all those registered to vote, could register to scrutinise and vote on each piece of legislation before it is passed. That would be genuine, 21st century-style democracy. The actual logistics of how this could be implemented would need to be worked out, and it would be no small undertaking, but the result could be a democratic revolution that genuinely hands power to the people.

Suddenly, and in the spirit of the democrat revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, I don’t feel as enthusiastic about our plans to tweak our existing system. I think we need to go much, much further. If the Lib Dems are to survive, and reclaim our radical edge, we need to think outside the box, and think the unthinkable.

Matt Wood was the PPC for Ynys Mon in 2010.

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33 Comments

  • The Conservative Party has absolutely zero reason to give the Liberal Democrats anything but crumbs from their table. There is no commitment anywhere in the coalition agreement to implement any Lords reform, radical or not, only to bring forward proposals. Even the currently planned reforms are unlikely to make any headway in this parliament. This stuff – which isn’t yet an idea so much as a back of the envelope, how do I reach my word count scrawl – is going nowhere.

  • Matthew Burton 9th May '11 - 3:29pm

    This is an interesting proposal, and something that has been tried in New Zealand, with a rather resounding failure. In New Zealand they have a unicameral Parliament, and an MMP electoral system, meaning their Parliament is much more diverse than ours, in terms of political representation at least. However, there is a shockingly bad record of legislative scrutiny, with the Government getting its way a vast majority of the time. There is a concern with the failure of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (a precursor to our Human Rights Act 1998) to hold the Government to account, as the combination of unicameral Parliament and Parliamentary sovereignty means that what the Government wants, the Government gets. For a clear example, see the Hansen case and the denial of the presumption of innocence, arguably a foundational right to any liberal democratic society.

    This wouldn’t work, would hand too much power to politicians in the Commons and would definitely not “give power to the people”. As much as freedom is a very good thing, pure majoritarianism is not something a society should necessarily value, not without considering the rights of minorities and affected individuals. If “we the people” had a vote on every issue of legislation then the chances are we’d have some very bad legislation.

    I don’t know if you’re aware of the work done on popular constitutionalism in the States, but people like Mark Tushnet and Larry Kramer have argued for a system like this for years. It has some theoretical merit, but in practice would be disastrous.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '11 - 4:15pm


    A panel of the People, which would include all those registered to vote, could register to scrutinise and vote on each piece of legislation before it is passed. That would be genuine, 21st century-style democracy.

    At best this would mean rule by people who have time on their hands. This is what we see in internet discussions – they do tend to be dominated by certain sorts of people, I could use a pejorative name for them, but I won’t, but anyway not a representative sample of the population. That’s unless you mean the “Citizens’ Jury” concept, which is also very problematical – I have seen how those in power can use it to get the answer they wanted in the first place. Essentially, you bring together a few naive people, feed them some propaganda, and they then agree to whatever it is you wanted them to agree to, and you can shut up the opposition with “Look – the people have spoken, who are you to go against what they said?”.

    In reality, good politics DOES require a certain sort of wily person who knows the right questions to ask, can see the right stones to turn over, and has the ability to stand up to well-meaning council officers, paid experts etc, who can be very intimidating if you aren’t used to their environment.

    The AV referendum is an EXCELLENT example of why rule-by-referendum or similar mechanisms is a bad idea. For most ordinary people this was just too technical an issue to think about, so they were easily conned by the power of money which paid for the horrendous lies and innumerate, illogical and contradictory material put out by the “No” campaign. I feel very strongly that if it were properly explained to all people, there would have been a big majority for “Yes”. I was horrified by how many people I spoke to who didn’t have a clue and were going to vote “No” for the most ridiculous reasons. They were conned, by THE Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the other voices of the fat cats.

    Admittedly, the rubbish nature of the “Yes” campaign did not help. That is why I did not bother with it, and instead put my efforst into writing letters to the local press etc explaining the “Yes” case. It may be a coincidence, but there is quite a close correlation between the places where I had my letters published in the local press and the places where there was a high “yes” vote.

  • “At best this would mean rule by people who have time on their hands. This is what we see in internet discussions – they do tend to be dominated by certain sorts of people, I could use a pejorative name for them, but I won’t …”

    Yours is the longest comment on this thread so far, by quite a long way …

  • The AV referendum is an EXCELLENT example of why rule-by-referendum or similar mechanisms is a bad idea. For most ordinary people this was just too technical an issue to think about, so they were easily conned by the power of money which paid for the horrendous lies and innumerate, illogical and contradictory material put out by the “No” campaign

    Oh dear oh dear…. Blaming the voters again for being foolish. Get the result you don’t want and blaming the electorate is becoming rather tiresome and quite rightly at least some posters on this forum are realising what a big mistake it is.

  • As has been said above, the people who would participate in an online chamber would be a self-selecting population of people with an axe to grind – think a cross between CiF and the comments pages on the Daily Mail. 🙂 And anyone else who participated would be as susceptible to influence by The Sun or Daily Mail, local lobbyists and any politician with the gift of the gab as indeed voters are today. In any case, look at what happened to Nick Clegg’s exercise in purging the statute books last year.

    However, I agree that the trouble with electing people is that they tend to be a self-selecting brand of individual too, and they need certain otherwise undesirable skills in order to convince the general public to vote for them. This is my personal main reservation about an elected House of Lords; it would be filled with the same people as the House of Commons (unless rules were enforced to ensure that all candidates have the same amount of money at their disposal and can’t be backed by political parties… hah 🙂

    But maybe your idea of true public scrutiny could be achieved by introducing a second chamber of randomly-selected people, a sort of democratic jury service where people have to give a few weeks of their time to scrutinise bills (with the correct amount of impartial legal advice). Though again the logistics of explaining government bills to them would probably make the system unworkable in the long term. Still, it’s food for thought.

  • IMO, referenda and direct democracy are not only stupid ways of making law but are actively dangerous. Legislation should be made by people who have at least a general idea what the issues are.

    Am I saying people are stupid? No. People aren’t stupid, but they are ignorant of 99% of all areas of policy. I’m both better educated (through luck and fortunate birth, not my own talents) and far more interested in politics that the majority of the population, but I wouldn’t feel remotely qualified to make a decision – or even to officially ‘scrutinise’ a single one of the bills that have come before parliament this session. There have been perhaps two bills in the past 10 years dealing with issues about which I have sufficient knowledge to hold an informed opinion.

    Good government requires expertise, and people with jobs / hobbies / social lives are unlikely to give any issue more than 30 seconds attention. It’s only saddos like us that spend time on this cr*p 🙂

    And even apart from the problem of expertise, the people taking the decisions should be accountable for them – which is impossible in a referendum where a) votes are cast anonymously and b) no one will feel accountable when they’re one voter amongest a possible 45 million.

    Forget the AV vote – you only need to look at Iceland for a recent example of the idiotic decisions that can result from referenda!

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th May '11 - 6:05pm

    Matthew: “For most ordinary people this was just too technical an issue to think about, so they were easily conned”

    I take it then you weren’t one of those Yes campaigners who were outraged when the No campaign suggested that AV was too complicated for the proverbial ordinary voter??

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th May '11 - 6:10pm

    “we must speak up for the aspirations of the British people, particularly the disillusioned young”

    If you seriously want to re-engage our young people in the political process, the best way to start would be to throw out every single Lib Dem MP who broke his or her pledge on tuition fees.

    My hunch is that what people (of all ages) want most of all is politicians who inspire and can be trusted – this is far more important than Mickey Mouse political reforms.

  • Hove Howard 9th May '11 - 6:20pm

    A House of Lords elected, or part-elected, by PR would help to keep electoral reform on the agenda and would effectively undermine the legitimacy of an FPTP elected Commons.

    So keep the Lords, if for that reason only.

  • Oh dear. I see @Matthew Huntbach is still blaming the voters and claiming we’re too stupid to analyse the mechanics of AV vs. FPTP. I voted Yes, but I know many good people, principled people, who just thought AV was a crap alternative and would have preferred to keep FPTP. I would’ve preferred PR but saw AV as a start. More people disagreed with me and AV lost. That’s democracy. Why can you not accept that maybe people just don’t agree with you?

    Where does this arrogance come from that sees many LDs blaming the electorate for their own failures, or calling us all “irrational” (as Martin Land did in another thread) because you didn’t get what you wanted? I’m reminded of some of the old Stalinists back in the 1960s who would say “if only our message about communism wasn’t distorted by the right, then people would back it.”

    You need to accept that most of us get your message. We just don’t like it anymore. Why is that so hard for you to grasp?

  • I’m amazed that this has turned into another tit-for-tat about AV. We lost it, deal with it. We never should have accepted an AV referendum as a compromise when it was not our policy to begin with. The Tories played a very clever game, and won.

    I put this idea forward to spur debate about the House of Lords issue. I think it helps to be self-critical, and the fact is that as a party, we are still fighting for ideas that were being debated 100 years ago, which the public – like AV – cares little about. The world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and I think it’s important that we have a root and branch review of policy as a party. We are likely to suffer an identity crisis going into the next election, and issues like House of Lords reform aren’t going to inspire the public anymore than they have for the past 100 years, but it’s still important that we discuss it.

    Just ask yourselves the question, if everything were destroyed tomorrow, and we all together had to rebuild our institutions and democracy from the ground up, fit for the 21st century, how would we build it? I would use it as an opportunity to redesign our democracy, rather than starting again from the building blocks of the old. I personally don’t think that more elected politicians are going to inspire more confidence in politics.

    And on the point that someone made about having expert scrutiny of legislation, the House of Lords (or the House of Commons for that matter) is not filled with the brightest brains in Britain. Let’s not assume that elected, or non-elected, politicians are best suited to create legislation. A wider level of influence and cooperation with people and groups from outside the political class could lead to better, more effective legislation. As Adam Bell said, this could encompass some sort of e-Chamber. It could on the other hand mean making greater use of the thousands of local Councillors and giving them more say over national policy.

    As I implied in my post, I do not have all the answers, this is simply an idea, designed to inspire debate about the future shape of our democracy. I just think maybe we need to have a fresh look at things as a party.

  • “How many EU countries have not been facist [sic], communist, revolutionary, dictatorships, or repeatedly invaded in the last three hundred and fifty years? Only one. ”

    I take it you’re referring to Sweden. No? The United Kingdom? Have the English forgotten that it was invaded in 1715 and 1745? I know the Scots have not. And as for “revolutionary”, there’s that little matter of 1688-1689… do they teach history in schools these days?

  • My instinct remains to abolish the House of Lords and strengthen select committees sufficiently to enable adequate scrutiny of legislation. I recall this was Robin Cook’s position. Though perhaps this should only happen once we have PR for the House of Commons, to reduce the chance of a minority party ramming through unpopular legislation.

    While we still have a House of Lords, I would go with Jock’s idea above of making local politicians members of the second chamber. Then we wouldn’t need a separate election for the second chamber. And if we elected councillors by STV, as they do in Scotland and N Ireland, this would provide an additional layer of legitimacy to the second chamber.

  • I think there is certainly some merit in the idea of sending local Councillors to the second chamber and I would be more in favour of this than having a reconstructed and elected upper chamber by PR as currently proposed.

  • Gareth Jones 10th May '11 - 1:07am

    Just thought I’d throw in this idea, for arguments sake. What about a form of Jury service? 100 people selected like Juries are to accept, amend or decline legislation. They would probably need professional politicians to argue for or against, like lawyers, but only the 100 get to vote (speaker acts like Judge?). Like Jury service, it is time or bill limited, the people are compensated for their time and certain occupations are exempted. A form of direct democracy which is also within the traditions of the country?

  • Putting aside the problems of electing the right people, there is a need for a legislative chamber which, unlike the Commons, is not dominated by the Executive. The present Lords, with its cross-bench peers comes close to fulfilling that role.

  • Old Codger Chris 10th May '11 - 11:45am

    Matt Wood’s proposal is interesting but, like others, I’m not sure it would work. Some kind of scrutinising and revising body is certainly needed.

    The argument against a wholly elected second chamber has always been that its composition would be dominated by political parties and might merely mirror the Commons.

    Perhaps if we ever get a representative House of Commons elected by PR (yes, old men are allowed to dream) the second chamber could be composed of members nominated by all kinds of organisations – stakeholders in modern parlance. The Lords already has an element of this, with members including representatives of charities, the Church, business, trade unions etc.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '11 - 2:10am

    Stuart Mitchell

    Matthew: “For most ordinary people this was just too technical an issue to think about, so they were easily conned”

    I take it then you weren’t one of those Yes campaigners who were outraged when the No campaign suggested that AV was too complicated for the proverbial ordinary voter??

    There’s a difference between “technical” and “complicated”. I’m not saying AV was complicated, but like many important issues of principle its immediate relevance isn’t obvious. My experience was that if you could get people to sit down and listen to a careful explanation of AV and in particular what it could achieve by ending the “don’t split the vote” fear, they reacted very positively. But the difficulty was getting them to that point rather than having them switch off at the start saying “boring” before they even knew what it meant.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '11 - 2:19am

    Squeedle

    Where does this arrogance come from that sees many LDs blaming the electorate for their own failures, or calling us all “irrational” (as Martin Land did in another thread) because you didn’t get what you wanted? I’m reminded of some of the old Stalinists back in the 1960s who would say “if only our message about communism wasn’t distorted by the right, then people would back it.”

    You need to accept that most of us get your message. We just don’t like it anymore. Why is that so hard for you to grasp?

    I saw no sign that most people got the message on AV.

    Sorry, I don’t know how to put this without sounding arrogant, but I was offended most as a mathematician rather than as a poltician by the “No to AV” campaign.

    I have tried my best to put my arguments everywhere I can. I have no problem in an argument when we reach a point where we “agree to disagree” – that is, we have disocbvered the point of principle where we disagree and each side understands perfectly the position of the other. This hasn’t happened with AV. Rather, I feel Ihave spent hours and hours trying to explain whyt I think a “Yes” vote was the best one, and most of the response I have had from people like you has just been “Lah, lah, lah, I’m not listening, you’re nasty dirty Liberal Democrats and I hate you” rather than something which leaves me feeling you have understoodf thecase and rejected it after that.

    It may be bad politics for me to put it that way, you may say I lost so I shoudl jsut shut up. Very well, but if I remain silent, it won’t stop me thinking that way.

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