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In the News

Hear the one about the search for a Labour hereditary peer?

Mike McCartney

1st November 2021

A strange story that gives us cause to revisit the old chestnut of Lords reform.

It’s probably fair to say that the House of Lords is not an institution much admired by students of Politics, never mind many other people. True, respect for politicians has witnessed a steady decline in recent years. But it is the lack of accountability to the electorate via the ballot box (an argument which predates many of the scandals - such as parliamentary expenses - which have caused opinion poll figures on trust to hit an all-time low), that is the main reason why thinking about these ermine-cloaked figures seems to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

And then reading this story in the paper at the weekend, I did have to check the date, to ensure it wasn't published on the first of April. It really seems that the Lords as an institution seems intent on undermining its own credibility by leaking bad PR that overshadows much of the good work it undertakes, e.g. the amendment to the Environment Bill (yes, the one on raw sewage).

Read this:

"Wanted: One aristocrat who would like to sit in the House of Lords for the rest of their life, vote on legislation that affects the public, and be paid £305 a day for turning up to parliament.

The catch? The successful applicant is expected to be a Labour supporter.

Keir Starmer’s party appears to have finally found an individual who fits the bill after a recruitment search for someone with a hereditary peerage who is willing to take up one of the seats allocated to Labour in the House of Lords.

The favoured candidate is David Hacking, 3rd Baron Hacking, an 83-year-old barrister who spent decades sitting in parliament as a Conservative peer. He defected to Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1998 in protest at the growth of Tory Euroscepticism and then-leader William Hague’s tough talk on prison policy."

Source: Labour finally finds willing hereditary peer for House of Lords seat | House of Lords | The Guardian

If you have yet to study the Lords, you may ask how did we get here?

The Guardian provides an overview of this bizarre state of play:

"The unusual recruitment process has arisen due to the half-reformed nature of the House of Lords. In 1999, Tony Blair’s Labour government removed the right of hundreds of the hereditary peers to take up their ancestral right to sit in parliament’s upper house.

As a compromise, it allowed 92 hereditary peers to remain, on what was supposed to be a temporary basis. These seats were mainly allocated by party allegiance, with the majority of slots going to the Conservatives and four taken by Labour hereditary peers.

Because the planned reforms to the House of Lords have never been enacted, every time one of these 92 individuals dies or retires, a byelection for the vacant seat in parliament is held. Anyone who has inherited a hereditary peerage can stand as a candidate, with other peers voting on whether to co-opt them into parliament."

So before making your mind up as to whether this latest story intensifies the need for reform, here is a brief précis of a few points often presented for and against upending the status quo.

Arguments in favour of reforming the Lords

Probably main argument is that the Lords as an institution is often viewed as elitist, unrepresentative of the general population (mostly old white men from privileged backgrounds), and overly conservative in outlook.

The hereditary element: a feature shared with only one other country. Lesotho; which has 22 tribal chiefs in its Senate.

Empirical evidence: The only other country in the world that is composed of entirely non-elected members is the Canadian Senate – itself modelled on the House of Lords. Surely that must tell you something?

Legitimacy: An elected chamber would be more be more confident of its role in the political process, thus a stronger bulwark against the over-mighty Commons.

Public demand: opinion polls consistently show 2/3 and above favour some elected element.

Representation: employing a PR based voting system would enable a more accurate portrayal of support for smaller parties in our national legislature (think UKIP 2010).

Unfinished business: after the ejection of all but 92 hereditaries, and the decamping of the Law Lords to the Supreme Court, the Lords sits untidily and contains a number of anomalies.

But without trying to defend the indefensible, we should also consider the arguments of those in favour of preserving the status quo.

Arguments against reforming the Lords

The current chamber works well. It is the most active chamber in the world. It sits for longer and meets more frequently than any other: Since 1999 the Lords has proved to be a useful check on the executive dominated Commons. See Meg Russell's research on this.

It provides an antidote to the lower house as it provides the opportunity to create a chamber which contains people who have experience of something other than professional politics. A chamber with mostly appointed rather than elected legislators is not without its advantages.

Legislative gridlock would occur. An elected chamber, granted a new sense of legitimacy would see no need to bow to the Commons.

Problems of election excess. There are nearly 1,000 elected office holders above local level in the UK. Do we really need any more?

On a related note, this raises concerns about the (low) quality of the new legislators – would It be stocked full of the ‘has beens’ and ‘never weres’.

As with a clutch of other potential reforms to the constitution, there is no real public appetite for reform.

Another problem in common with other constitutional reform proposals is the lack of consensus on the issue. Size, method and timing of elections, etc.

Introducing elections would be no panacea. Voters in countries with elected second chambers, such as the USA, are not over the moon with the job they perform.


Outline the role of the House of Lords

Use the internet to research constitutional reform further via The Constitution Unit website (a very useful source of up-to-date material, including a summary table by parliamentary session of government defeats in the Lords).

Discuss whether further House of Lords reform is necessary. If so, what would these changes involve?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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