The House of Lords can’t be anything like the US Senate, Mr Caldwell

Letters, Financial Times, 17-18 March 2007:

A reformed Lords essential to hold executive to account
By Brian Barder

Sir, For once Christopher Caldwell's feel for the British constitution and politics has deserted him ("An impasse at the House of Lords", March 10). An all-elected second chamber would not result in "'gridlock' arising from two co-equal legislatures with clashing cultures and interests", because the two chambers would not be "co-equal": the Commons would retain its primacy as generator, host, sustainer and potential destroyer of governments, the chamber in which virtually all significant ministers sit and which alone controls supply, and the one able ultimately to override objections of the second chamber to its decisions.

If in addition the second chamber is elected a third at a time on a different timetable to the Commons, with each member serving for a longer term, and by a different electoral system that denies an overall majority to any single party, no danger of a challenge to the Commons or even of a claim to equality with the Commons can arise.

For all these reasons Mr Caldwell's analogy with the US Senate is faulty. However, Mr Caldwell is correct in pointing out that the current controversy over alleged "cash for peerages" has effectively discredited any idea of appointing even a small proportion of members of the second chamber, a proposal (along with the suggestion of party lists for elections to it) brazenly designed to perpetuate the executive's power of patronage and its already excessive control over both Houses of Parliament.

Finally, Mr Caldwell should know that the question whether we "need a second house in the first place" is often raised and that the answer to it is that abolition of the second chamber would leave us with a House of Commons already almost completely subservient to and controlled by the executive via the party system and the whips, whereas what is needed is much greater parliamentary power to hold the executive to account, for which a reformed, wholly elected second chamber is absolutely essential.

Brian Barder
London SW18
(HM Diplomatic Service 1965-94)

3 Responses

  1. Jeremy Varcoe says:


    I share most of your opinions; the vital need for a scrutinising and moderating chamber,the primacy of the Commons and the problem of patronage. However I abhor the prospect of yet another bunch of political aparatchiks being manipulated into office. There must be scope for expertise such as is now provided by the Law Lords, crossbenchers from business etc and, yes, even a few Bishops. In short I pray that we are spared an all-elected second chamber – especially if elected from party lists. It must be possible to devise a 'neutral' Appointments Commission to establish those special groups/communities qualifying to nominate their representatives. What noone seems to remember is that the present House of Lords has actually served this country rather well over the past 50 years despite its quirky, partially unrepresentative and unwieldy composition . Unfortunately we have a government bent on destroying our constitution for largely partisan motives and with no sense of history! I truly fear for justice, stability and democracy in Britain.

    Brian writes: Jeremy, thanks for that.  I think the idea of an upper house representing the major interest groups in the state is a little close to Mussolini's idea of democracy (the corporate state) for comfort, although it has its attractions — until you begin to think about the sheer impossibility of deciding which interests and groups would need to be included.   Nor do I think you need to appoint people to membership for their expertise:  few experts have much to contribute outside their own area of expertise, which will rarely be relevant to the proceedings.  Anyway experts can always be called on by Select Committees (and why not invite them to participate without vote in plenary proceedings?) ad hoc: they don't need to be members.  I agree about the need to avoid "yet another bunch of political aparatchiks", which is what would result from Jack Straw's impudent proposal to elect the second chamber on party lists, which would mean that membership would depend on the approval of the party whips and leaders: there needs to be a system that allows fringe parties and independents to get themselves elected.  The system for electing the Australian Senate isn't a bad model, although complex.  It has to be by PR to ensure that no party has an overall majority.  In my view, re-election should be banned (but members should serve for around 12 years each), and anyone who had been elected to the second chamber should be banned from standing for election to the House of Commons.  There might even be a case for banning anyone who has ever been an MP from standing for election to the second chamber.  The distinctive functions of the second chamber should attract more serious people than the Commons does, and bans of the kind suggested should keep out the clapped-out hacks, the careerists, and those being rewarded by membership for years of sheep-like obedience to the whips.  With those safeguards, I see no reason why we should shy away from an all-elected house.  Not to trust the electorate to choose worth-while representatives — and remember that their votes for that chamber wouldn't affect which party formed a government — doesn't strike me as democratic, and the experience of the many other countries with elected second chambers is reassuring.  I don't see why Britain should be uniquely disabled from electing all the members of its own legislature.  Our democracy should have matured sufficiently for that by now!

    By the way, the law lords are due to disappear from the House of Lords soon anyway, as I understand it.  Judges shouldn't be mixed up with politicians.  (Nor of course should bishops!) 

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    The House of Lords is in a greater mess than ever thanks to the halfcock "reforms" of this government.  But we should not let that distract us from the far more important problem that the House of Commons is also in a mess, neatly symbolised by Tony Blair's gesture in quitting it just before the recent debate on the Iraq war, a gesture that was given the routine Punch and Judy treatment in Parliament but ignored outside it. 

    We have reached the pass that debates on major topics in the House of Commons, unless they happen to occasion party revolts or the like, are scarcely reported in the media, and the debate on the Today programme or the Tonight programme is regarded by ministers, politicians and it would appear the general public as far more significant.

    This could perhaps be a new form of democracy, though I am such an old sentimentalist that I prefer the Parliamentary kind.  The new version has a major fault:: although our media masters have shown that they can get ministers sacked, they are not so good at policy.  I recall a full-length interview with David Cameron which was mainly about whether he had a car following him when he rode his bicycle, and I have lost count of the number of interviews with the prime minister designate which have allowed him to go on about the economy and seldom or never answer questions about policy on anything else.

    Brian writes:  I entirely agree that the House of Commons is also in urgent need of reform, principally to free it from the control of the executive, the party leaders and the whips, although the system probably needs more radical surgery to achieve that than the patient could survive.  It's partly because the People's House has effectively lost the power and will to hold the government to account and to check its multiplying excesses that the case for democratising and reviving the second chamber seems to me so urgently necessary, as I pointed out in my FT letter (see main post).  The paradox is that although the current composition of the Lords looks as if it has been devised by a wild-eyed political philosopher in the grip of a nervous breakdown, in practice Their Lordships often do a quite effective job in challenging the government's most extreme nonsenses.  But the situation is neither defensible nor sustainable.

  3. Make it like jury duty.  Randomly select members of the public for a one-year term.  Seriously though, I think any discussion of this is moot for as long as the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is law.  Restore parliamentry democracy and then address the House of Lords.  Given that they, along with the judiciary,  have been our last bulwark against the Blair regime’s dictatorial aspirations, I don’t want to see them reformed by this criminal government.