Opinion: The Elephant In The Room

There is something very wrong with the House of Lords- but it is nothing compared to the consequences of a botched attempt at reform under our ‘flexible’ constitution.

The recent outbreak of the ‘Peers-for-Hire’ scandal has led to renewed calls for ‘reform’ of the House of Lords – and from all sides of the political spectrum. Labour members would love to see a fully elected House of Lords, while Conservative members, despite their reservations, are now slowly heading in that direction. Both parties, however, seem to completely miss the point. And we as Liberal Democrats – as much as it seems superficially ‘liberal’ for us to jump on this bandwagon – need to seriously consider our position on reform. Why? Because quite simply a democratically elected Upper House combined with our current constitutional settlement represents nothing more than a colossal elephant trap for the future of democracy in Britain.

A brief survey of the past 10 years of New Labour reveals a very different style of governance, something which we could perhaps call the emergence of extra-constitutionalism. For now, what was once sacred and holy can be subject to a whipped vote in the Commons, with Labour MPs running scared of the slightest possibility of sanction while Conservative MPs happily watch their inheritance of power expanding at the hands of Brown, Smith and Straw.

As MPs grow more and more lemming-like, our liberties and freedoms fade away into the background while a centralizing beast we call the Labour administration chips away at the very bedrock of modern Britain. The problem in this day and age is not the undemocratic nature of our upper house – it is the undemocratic and dangerous nature of our unwritten and supposedly ‘flexible’ constitution. And that is the elephant in the room that all three parties, including the Lib Dems, are ignoring.

The only thing that stands between our liberties and a government bent on removing them is the very institution that some now propose we hand over to the whips on a silver platter. As unacceptable as the current situation is, and as devastating ‘Peer-gate’ may seem to be, the worst thing we could possibly do to this country at this point in time is remove the only barrier keeping the Conservatives and Labour away from achieving Hailsham’s ‘elective dictatorship’. Is that what we really want? And is this really preserving liberty and defending democracy?

It can be easily argued with a brief glance back at the past 10 years that the House of Lords has effectively become the last guarantor of our traditions of freedom in the face of expansionist governance, and tabloid frenzy over (for example) the Human Rights Act. To sacrifice its unique ability to do this will be to facilitate the slow decline of the liberal consensus in Britain in favour of scaremongering and populism.

Many have argued that an elected second house could work as well here as it does elsewhere. That, to put it succinctly, is untrue. Unlike the rest of the world, we do not benefit from codified rights, or even a codified constitution. And that is exactly what is needed before any move is made towards comprehensive reform of the Upper House. Until the rule of law and the dominance of a written constitution supersede the supremacy of an over-whipped and un-representative puppet of the executive branch, the Lords must remain in its current form: to protect our rights, to defend our liberties and to control the obsessive-compulsive nature of New Labour and a possible Conservative government within the next 18 months. As bitter a pill as this may seem to many Liberal activists of today, our best ideological friend may in fact be the House of Lords rather than the Commons.

What we as Liberal Democrats need to do is recognise that the ultimate preservation of the tradition of liberty our party has fought for over hundreds of years lies in a codified constitution; and only when that is achieved can we talk about democratizing the Upper House. The Liberals of today will not be judged on the amount of investment we pour into infrastructure, or the percentage tweaks we apply to taxation – we will be judged on our ability to successfully fight the dangers of over-centralized and constitutionally unaccountable governments which threaten to swallow our freedoms whole over the next few decades.

* Edwin Loo is the Campaigns & Communications Director for London Liberal Youth and a 1st Year Politics & History Undergraduate at the London School of Economics.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliament.


  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Feb '09 - 8:19pm

    Er Edwin, stop reading the Daily Mail and start thinking.

    “Expansionist government”?

    Aren’t we suffering a lot of problems now because the government ceded real power to the bankers and look at the mess they made?

    Our power generation industry, and our water supply, and our rail transport and our air transport – power over these all long ago ceded to the bankers.

    What I actually see is a government madly pulling levers and finding nothing happening because it and its predecessors gave power away.

    I do take your point about the constitution, it’s one of the things that made me a Liberal, but I do think it would help if you read a bit of history.

  • The more one sees of elected politicians, the more appealing the hereditary principle seems.

  • The more one sees “liberals” wanting to suppress opinions they disagree with, the more amused one is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Feb '09 - 10:28am

    Many years ago when I was very young I wrote a paper in support of the “Lords by ballot” idea, which I had thought up by myself. I’m surprised to find now serious people seriously advocating it, as I think this was typical teenage idealism. My feeling now is that proper scrutiny of legislation requires a certain sort of wily individual who knows where to look and what awkward questions to ask. Joe Citizen is actually very easily misled by someone authoritative explaining the case for some idea and quite probably just wants the authoritative person to get on with it so he can say “Yes, that sounds good” and go home and have his tea. I’ve seen citizens’ juries effectively used by authority to get what it wants – present the jury with one-sided arguments, when it agrees with those arguments shut up the opposition by saying “the people spoke up and agreed with us, who are you to disagree with them?”.

    The problem with any sort of electoral system based on personal votes is that it favours a certain sort of loud-mouthed person with the confidence to put himself forward to selection committees and the rest of the process. Sexist pronoun intentional here, and that’s why quotas won’t work, males are more likely to have this characteristic and imposing male/female quotas without looking deeper at what is really the problem just means massive discrimination in favour of females who have alpha-male characteristics while doing nothing about the discrimination against non-alpha-males of both sexes.

    For this reason, I prefer STV for the Commons, but pure proportional list for the Lords. The list ought to be a chance to work as Lords nomination does now – enable the nomination of people who have useful skills but are not necessarily jumping to put themselves forward, and who might not get a good share of 1st preference votes in STV. Parties would need to get a good balanced team at the top of the list. Hereditary peers and bishops could put forward a list to see how much real support there is for those people being there.

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