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House of Lords reform debate "reignited"

Mike McCartney

15th June 2023

So says a recent article in the Financial Times

That old chestnut of House of Lords reform has come to the surface again. And the best writing about it in recent days is this piece from the FT. Unfortunately, the current chatter about the Lords has not been triggered by deep thinking by experts regarding the delicate balance between our institutions, or overarching questions about the correct role and place for a second chamber within our overall, governing apparatus.

Instead it has risen to the forefront of debate as the result of the rather grubby nature of appointments of a former prime minister, and this tale paints a somewhat sordid picture of political life in Britain today. The mini-storm created by a member of the Commons who has said they are not stepping down as an MP until they uncover the background as to why their elevation to the upper chamber has been blocked, is something that should not be part of a modern democracy.

The general arguments for reform are as follows...

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.

But the bulk of these arguments must take place within the context of a proper debate about the UK's new constitutional settlement post-Brexit, and one that considers such things as the full impact of the post-1997 devolution arrangements. But, surely in the immediate term there needs to be a block on the creation of any new peerages, alongside the swift removal of the remaining hereditary peers? These are the things that really stick in the craw as far as the British public are concerned when it comes to the upper house?

Mike McCartney

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

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