House of Lords ‘reform’: how not to (with late 25 Oct update)

Jack Straw's proposals for 'reforming' the House of Lords, contained in a long document leaked at the weekend to the Sunday Times and available on its website, are a tepid, boneless, pathetic bit of fudge (to mix several metaphors).  I am grateful to the Guardian for publishing today (25 Oct 06) selected extracts from the rather longer letter that I sent on the 22nd, but of course I regret some of the omissions, so I reproduce here the original text as submitted to the Guardian (the edited text as printed is at the end of this post).  

The original letter said:

Jack Straw's reported proposals for House of Lords 'reform' are wrong in almost every detail and should be briskly rejected.  The government and the party machines already exercise virtually total control over the House of Commons, and these proposals would give them effective control over the Upper House too, whereas the objective should be to restore parliament's power to hold the executive to account, not to demolish it altogether.  Straw wants only half of the new chamber to be elected, when it was clear from the last debates and from the Select Committee's unanimous report that most MPs favour at least 80 or preferably 100 per cent elected.  Why should half of one of our legislative bodies remain undemocratically appointed?  Almost all other comparable western democracies have wholly elected legislatures:  what is so uniquely untrustworthy about the British electorate? 

What's worse, it seems to be envisaged that the elected half would be chosen on the discredited party list system, putting the membership of the elected part of the Upper House under the control of the party bosses.  Since under the Straw proposals the same party bosses would also have a major say in appointments to the unelected section of the chamber, this would give them effective control over the whole House, just as they have over the House of Commons.  There's no possible justification for retaining seats for bishops or creating seats reserved for women, Muslims, atheists or any other racial or other randomly chosen groups.  Any such attempt to make the House "representative" by manipulating appointments to it is doomed to result in corrupt patronage.  Even the suggestion that the chamber should continue to be called the House of Lords, and its members so designated, is absurd: what's wrong with 'Senate'? 

Parliament should insist on a genuinely open PR system for electing at least 80% of the members, with party leaders having no say at all in any appointments commission for any remaining unelected element.  The Senate should be elected every 8 or 10 years on a different timetable from the Commons, its members disqualified completely from later membership of the Commons and from serving more than two terms in the Senate. 

Lastly, there's no possible justification for the disgraceful suggestion that the powers of a largely elected Upper House should be reduced from those now exercised by the Lords, another brazen attempt to tighten the executive's grip on parliament:  the continued primacy of the Commons is assured by its theoretically unlimited powers compared with the limited functions of the Other Place, and by the central function of the Commons as the creator and sustainer of governments, not by making the Upper House even more undemocratic and even less able to monitor and check executive power.  Time for members of both Houses of Parliament to stand up and be counted!

Perhaps the most squalid of Straw's proposals is that the electoral system for the elected element of the new reformed house should be party lists, with the parties drawing up their national lists of candidates in order of preference (i.e. in order of spineless obedience to the Whips and party bosses) and the voters reduced to voting for this or that party, or at best to choosing our own order of preference from the pre-cooked list of names on offer.  Although the results can be plausibly described as PR (because party strengths will be in proportion to the votes cast for them), it's an absolutely indefensible form of it, especially for election to a legislative and deliberative chamber with the duty (among others) of holding the government to account.  Some form of PR is obviously essential for the second chamber, in order to ensure that no one party will normally command an overall majority and thus to maximise the chamber's independence from the executive (just as First Past the Post is essential for elections to the House iof Commons in order to offer the best chance that one party will have an overall majority and thus be able to form a government capable of honouring its manifesto promises): but for the second chamber almost any kind of PR will be better than party lists.  Even to suggest party lists is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate and to the capacity for independent thinking of our present parliamentarians.

The Straw proposals for preventing the abuse of the second chamber as a career springboard for the House of Commons (by banning its members from standing for the Commons for five years after serving in it) are much too feeble.  Members of the second chamber should be banned from serving more than two eight- or ten-year terms in it, and banned for life from standing for election to the House of Commons once elected or appointed to the second chamber.  These bans are absolutely essential if members of the second chamber — let's call them Senators, right? — are not to be vulnerable to the kind of bullying, blackmail and threats by the Whips and other party leaders to which career politicans in the House of Commons are constantly exposed, and which are at the root of the executive's success in seizing almost total control of the legislature. 

For similar reasons, it's outrageous that the prime minister of the day and the other party leaders should be involved in any way in the selecting the members of the commission responsible for appointing the non-elected members of the second chamber (if any).  Like the proposed party lists, this is a brazen attempt to ensure that the party apparatchiks will have effective control of the membership of the second chamber, especially if only half of its membership is to be elected, as Straw proposes.  (Half elected!  More like half-baked.)

The Straw proposal to perpetuate the reservation of even a reduced number of seats in the second chamber for Church of England bishops is surely among the most obviously offensive, discriminatory, indeed asinine, of all his ideas.  On what possible principle can it be asserted that  bishops have a superior right to membership of a democratic legislature compared with any other group of people chosen at random:  engineers, say, or Lieutenant-Colonels, or members of the Football Association?  To try to head off the charge of discrimination by proposing, as Mr Straw actually does, that the appointed element should also be fiddled to include other 'faith groups' besides the C of E bishops makes the whole idea even more fatuous.  Who is to say which faith groups should be so privileged?  Christian Scientists?  Scientologists?  Flat-earthers? Faith healing evangelists and devil exorcists?  Satanists?  Every last Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist splinter group, however barmy or malign?  How is the vast army of British atheists and those with absolutely no interest in religion to be assured of representation alongside the supernaturalists?  The Church of England can remain the legally Established Church if that's still important to it — a matter of supreme indifference or incomprehension to about 99 per cent of the population, I imagine;  but there's no perceptible reason why establishment should entitle it to this undeserved legislative privilege.

Then again, why should seats be reserved for women?  Why not for the physically and mentally handicapped, the unemployed, the blind, the illiterate, and every other group sometimes subjected to discrimination?  Indeed, why not for men?  All these people, from the grandest bishop to the humblest devil-worshipper, every woman and every other member of every single victim group except children, is or should be free to stand for election to the second chamber:  and we should not be ashamed or too arrogant to emulate other more sensible democracies by letting the electorate choose between them, not some self-important group of men and women in suits vetted beforehand by the same old time-expired and power-hungry politicians.

And lastly (phew!), why this excessive tendresse towards the existing life peers? Most of the old hereditary peers were booted out, rightly, with precious little ceremony:  the appointed life peers have known for the past nine years that Lords reform would eventually threaten their sinecures:  why should we be made to tolerate their continued privilege of legislating for us without our ever having had any say in the matter, until every last one of them has either died or been bribed by an unnecessary 'redundancy package' to stand down?  This would, by Straw's own admission, take years.  All together, now: "Why are we waiting?"

As promised, here's the abbreviated text of my letter as published in today's Guardian:

Jack Straw's reported proposals for House of Lords "reform" are
wrong and should be briskly rejected. The government and the party
machines already exercise virtually total control over the House of
Commons, and these proposals would give them effective control over
the upper house too.

There's no possible justification for retaining seats for bishops or
creating seats reserved for women, Muslims, atheists or any other
racial or other randomly chosen groups. Any such attempt to make the
House "representative" by manipulating appointments to it is doomed
to result in corrupt patronage. Parliament should insist on a
genuinely open PR system for electing at least 80% of the members,
with party leaders having no say in the appointments of the remaining
unelected element.

Brian Barder

Well, much better than not publishing it at all. 

Update (6 pm 25 Oct 06):  The lethally damaging commentary on the Straw paper posted earlier today on the Ministry of Truth blog is well worth reading (also see trackback below).  It comprehensively demolishes several of the more outlandish passages in this dreadful document.  Re-reading the Straw paper for the umpteenth time, I found myself repeatedly laughing aloud at the perverse absurdity of many of its arguments.  It's also extraordinarily sloppily written — surely not by the parliamentary staff of the Leader of the House?  And if not by them, by whom?  The heart sinks at the prospect, in the coming weeks and months, of all these barmy arguments being solemnly aired in the media and the blogosphere as if they deserved respectful consideration (it's already happening in the letters pages of The Times).  The spectacle of the Leader of the House of Commons acting as the handmaiden of the executive in its battle to increase its control over the second chamber as well as over the Commons is also deeply disheartening:  the Leader of the House should be putting the interests of parliament before those of the government, not vice versa.  Bad show, Straw.


4 Responses

  1. Excellent work Brian, please keep it up. 

    One thing: please, please please, lets not have a Senate!  Why emulate Imperial Rome?  Or indeed Imperial America?

    Brian comments:  Thanks!  But I don't mind emulating Australia (Senate).  To call it the House of Lords when there won't, one hopes, be a single lord in it (unless some get themselves elected to it), but still dozens of them outside it, would surely be ludicrous even by dizzy British standards of constitutional ludicrousness.  What name would you suggest?  (I have another reason for hankering after 'Senate':  it has a very good ancestry in federations, and — as argued elsewhere in Ephems — I believe that sooner or later we shall go the whole hog and develop our existing semi-federation into the fully fledged article, at which time the second chamber will take its proper place as the element of the legislature in which the constituent states [nations, provinces, whatever]  constituting the second tier of the federation will be represented, as in the US and Australia and many other federations. Even the dreadful document produced by Jack Straw hints at some kind of regional representation in the second chamber after reform, one of the few propositions in the documents that isn't embarrassingly feeble.)

  2. Carl Lundquist says:

    As regards your comments to Antipholus — right on.   From what I hear of the HoL controversy over here, the UK wants to keep a bicameral body but hasn’t the least idea of what to do with the second house.  So they tinker with its composition in various only slightly democratic ways.

     We kept our HoL in 1787 in the form of a body of representatives of the legislatures of the several states.  Senators were appointed by the state legislatures, albeit to fixed 6 year terms.   Tho a number of states made the appointment subject to electoral approval, direct election of the senators had to wait until 1913 iirc.

    As it turns out, the Senate has become a real model for federated nation states.   Democracies really do benefit from legislative representation of regions.    However,  those regions must have an existance separate from the nation.  They cannot be simply be districts.  American states, Canadian provinces, and German lander have real existance in the minds of their peoples.   A Texan is culturally  and linguisticly distinct from a New Yorker or a Bavarian from a Brandenburger.     The regions they live in have a  their own legislatures and govenrments.   Their Senators have real power nationally.

    The evolution of this sort of thing in the UK will be traumatic as hell to the HoC.  It will have to share the Westminster limelight and power with another house.  God knows the US House has its problems with our powerful Senate.   Does them a world of good tho, and has not done the nation all that badly — barring the late unpleasantness in 1861-65.

    You all do seem to have federal strains that devolution of a few parts has not seemed to cure.   Maybe more radical steps are needed.   But then who is a foreigner to say, eh?.  <g> 

  3. I agree 100 per cent (well, 99 per cent) with Brian’s views on Lords reform.  What we need is a political system with more checks and balances and greater separation of powers, and this argues for a more powerful second chamber, not a weaker one.  I think PR is essential but I think a regional/federal basis for electing the members won’t work until we have a genuine regional and federal system.  Given that we’re going to have elections I don’t think it’s going to be realistic to keep political parties out of the frame altogether.  The key to avoiding executive dominance of the second chamber is the use of PR and a system that gives members independence and security of tenure, without having to be reselected by the whips’ office.  There’s room for argument over the exact method of election but there should be no room for bishops and other religious leaders or for back-door nominations by the prime minister.  Straw’s paper is a disgrace. The most charitable interpretation is that it’s an opening bid.  Funny how the Labour party always seems to be less keen on democracy than the other two parties, isn’t it?

  1. 25 October, 2006

    […] A far more experienced man than I, namely Brian Barder, has his own choice words for Straw’s proposals, which are, as ever, well worth the investment of time required to read them… Jack Straw’s proposals for ‘reforming’ the House of Lords, contained in a long document leaked at the weekend to the Sunday Times and available on its website, are a tepid, boneless, pathetic bit of fudge (to mix several metaphors). […]