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94 years is long enough to wait Aug 10

Ninety-four years ago, the Parliament Act 1911 received Royal Assent. The Act was intended to begin the process of replacing the hereditary House of Lords with a democratic second chamber. Nearly a century later, the only elected members of the House of Lords are those hereditary peers elected by and from a small group of other gentry.

The Labour Party’s 1997 manifesto said:

As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.

While most, but not all, of the hereditary peers have gone, the House of Lords in no more democratic (although ironically it is more representative, the current party balance in the Lords more accurately representing the votes cast in the 2005 General Election than the seats in the House of Commons). The British Government is keen to export the principle of democratic governance, but democracy begins at home.

Why do we need a second chamber at all? Revising legislation to make it better written and less open to loopholes would surely be better done by civil servants qualified in law, employed to check the wording of new bills and reporting to the legislature. In America, the bicameral federal congress consists of the House of Representatives, based on population, and the Senate, where power is divided equally between states. The second chamber should, then, perform a role that requires a democratic basis – be that making substantive changes to laws or holding the executive to account – and either have a role distinct from the Commons or represent the population in a different way.

If the House of Lords is to continue with its current powers and responsibilities, it is the composition which must change. The argument that “It’s not the system you’d invent but it’s the best we’ve got” doesn’t hold water. If we are to preach democracy to others, we must do everything we can to ensure that ours is the best we can have.

As well as being an advocate of Lords reform, Robin Cook was a valued proponent of proportional representation. Yet the single best way the Government could defeat calls for PR for the Commons would be to introduce it for elections to the Lords. Two houses constituted in different ways: one by first-past-the-post, one by the single transferable vote, would complement each other.

But would this make the Lords more legitimate? To advocates of PR (usually ignored by the Labour Government anyway), yes. But would this threaten the primacy of the Commons? No. The relative powers of the two houses should be set down in law – ideally in a formal constitution. If this document, endorsed by the population – who, after all, have never been asked what form of government they would prefer – enshrines the supremacy of the House of Commons, it will be protected from overzealous Lords. Even without a constitution, a law defining the powers of the House of Lords would protect the power of the Commons.

This is not the dark ages and our laws should not be dictated by our tribe elders. An unelected second chamber is as unjustifiable as a benevolent dictatorship: both may produce welcome outcomes but both inhibit the freedom of the people to decide their own destiny. Reform was overdue in 1911; now it’s urgent. It’s time to elect the lords.

(This entry fulfils the Blog for Victory PledgeBank pledge. For more on Lords reform marking his anniversary, see the New Politics Network blog.)

3 Responses

  1. 1
    Owen's musings (via Trackback)

    House of Lords Reform

    My ha’porth on the House of Lords:*
    1. Don’t stop here. Just because the hereditary peers are largely gone does not mean we have ended up where we want to be.
    2.  Elect the upper chamber in rotation – eg a third of the house every …

  2. 2
    Owen's musings (via Trackback)

    House of Lords Reform 1: The Bloggers Round Up

    A summary of the blogosphere’s collective wisdom on House of Lords reform, in response to the Elect the Lords campaign. A summary of the main themes, which suggest quite a lot of consensus about what we want from a reformed House of Lords, thou…

  3. […] Long-term readers may recall that last August I joined a number of others to blog about House of Lords reform, marking the anniversary of the passing of the 1911 Parliament Act. […]