The Big Debate: Should the House of Lords be abolished?
The House of Lords is the UK’s unelected second chamber. Before any legislation can become law in the UK it must be approved by the Lords, even if it has already been passed by the House of Commons.
This is done in the name of ‘holding the government to account’. In fact, it allows an unelected and undemocratic body to shape our country’s politics, giving power to peers who cannot be held to account by a constituency or fear of not facing re-election – especially when many hold their seat for life. The House of Lords is yet another sign that our so-called democracy isn’t quite so democratic after all, and it should certainly be abolished.
Like any reasonable person, I’m opposed to the Conservatives’ planned cuts to tax credits and I’m thankful that they have been postponed. But do I think that this delay should have come from the House of Lords? Of course not; I’d be a hypocrite to claim that the actions of an elected government should be halted by the unelected Lords, even if that government’s mandate for their policies is questionable. Even the Lords themselves must realise the issues with their power when they have an informal pact not to (usually) interfere with “important” policy like finance.
Another issue with the House of Lords is that it exacerbates the problems of our “first past the post” electoral system, whose results do not reflect the reality of who the population voted for.
In June, The Guardian reported that the Lib Dems were set to see an increase in their number of peers in the Lords, despite winning only 7.9% of votes in May and now holding just 8 seats in parliaments. The Lib Dem’s ex-MPs are being returned to government, despite being ousted by voters, because it has been decided that many – like Alan Beith and Menzies Campbell – should be made peers.
In contrast, both the Greens and UKIP are underrepresented in the Lords, having 1 and 3 members respectively. Even compared to their seats in the Commons this is abysmal, let alone when the millions of votes each received in the election is taken into account. Having an unelected chamber is bad enough, but one which is so out of step with public opinion is just ridiculous.
The appointment of “celebrity” peers is baffling too. There’s been uproar about Andrew Lloyd Webber flying from America to back the tax credit cuts, but why does he sit in the House of Lords in the first place? Cats and Starlight Express might be pretty great musicals, but does that give him the right to a life peerage?
The same goes for Sebastian Coe and Melvyn Bragg, sitting for the Tories and Labour respectively. Coe did a lot of work for the Olympics and Bragg presents some interesting programmes on Radio Four, but that isn’t quite the same as being a politician, let alone an unelected one.
The House of Lords must be reformed and ultimately abolished. Just like the monarchy and private schools, it is symptomatic of a society which pays lip service to democracy and meritocracy but so often falls short of achieving it in reality.
The House of Lords, in breaking convention and blocking a financial bill for the first time in 100 years – in the shape of the Government’s tax credit reforms – has incurred the wrath of the government.
Clearly, the second chamber is unelected: it’s the one thing most people seem to know about the institution. Yet in this instance, in blocking reforms which contradicted the Prime Minister’s vow before the election to retain tax credits for working families, the Lords has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Britain.
In any case, the Lords is a more diverse place than many people think. Until May, when a record number of women and minority-ethnic members entered the Commons, the Lords had as many women and more members of colour than the Commons in the twenty-first century.
Although the Commons now has marginally more women than the Lords, the second chamber can still boast that women are more likely to reach its higher echelons than the Commons. Five of the last eight leaders of the Lords have been women – one of them was Baroness Amos, the first.
Given that the chamber is often caricatured as a retirement home for politicians, you might think I’m ignoring the fact that the average age of the upper chamber is 70. Yet the experience in the chamber should be seen as an asset: it has been proven that members are likelier to vote on their conscience than with the party-line, unlike in the Commons where the individual ambitions of MPs coupled with the party whip often overrules personal conscience.
Significantly, the Lords has already defeated the government 19 times in five months since the election, despite the Prime Minister’s protruding influence upon membership for the past five years. When Lord Strathclyde concludes his review into the constitutional relationship between the Lords and the Commons, on current evidence the power of the former should be protected, not undermined.
While representative democracy lay on the verge of crisis across much of Western Europe, the House of Lords has, as strange as it may seem, strengthened democracy in the twenty-first century.
Both the Liberal Democrats and the left wing of Labour have long argued for a fully-elected House of Lords. However, since 1999, the Lords has swaggered into the political mainstream as an intellectual policy-making heavyweight, not only revising the worst excesses of bills like the Health and Care Social Bill of 2012, but also succeeded in preventing unpopular bills such as ID cards and, now, tax credits.
In fact, the Lords has an uncharacteristic reputation for defending civil liberties, from voting against anti-terrorism bills in the Blair years, to historically voting through the gay marriage bill last April.
This is why Professor Meg Russell, one of the only noteworthy scholars studying upper chambers in the world, has through ten years of research transitioned from a clear-cut belief that the institution should become an elected body – a piece of advice Russell gave to the Blair government– to one which favours more careful consideration over the future of the chamber and leaves open the possibility of it remaining unelected for its own sake.
Russell acknowledges that the House of Lords proved the great political scientist Arendt Lijphart wrong. Lijphart said that upper chambers could never become more legitimate without becoming more elected, but the attendance of peers, policy-making strength and popularity of the Lords increased among the general public between 1999 and 2007.
Those in the Commons arguing against the legitimacy of the Lords should judge not lest ye be judged, because until 2015 the Lords was the most socially diverse chamber in parliament.
Certainly I have been convinced – having listened to debates in both chambers – that the Lords contribute more to policy-making than it is given credit for in the media and on Have I Got News For You. Perhaps the Prime Minister knows this: back in August, sources in the Conservative Party suggested Cameron’s infiltration of peers to the Lords, which has largely contributed to the damage of its reputation recently, has been a strategy to ‘destroy’ the Lords.
The Commons is in no position to scrap the Lords: the lower chamber must, first, reaffirm its own legitimacy.
Image: Wikimedia Commons