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Is reform of the House of Lords long overdue?

Mike McCartney

16th November 2021

So says an author on the Electoral Reform Society's (ERS) website.

Sadie Livingstone, on the ERS site, writes that:

"On the 9th and 10th November, the House of Lords will be hosting their fifth hereditary peer by-election this year.

The House of Lords Act 1999 led to the removal of all but 90 hereditary peers, plus the holders of the offices of Earl Marshall and Lord Great Chamberlain – in total, 92 hereditary peers remain in the chamber, though only 90 are replaced via by-elections.

Most by-elections take place within party groups, so when a Conservative hereditary peer retires, the remaining Conservative hereditary peers vote on who should take their place. These party groups reflected the proportion of party affiliation at the time of the 1999 reforms of the House of Lords.

The recent vacancy comes after the death of Viscount Simon, one of a group of 15 hereditary peers who were elected by the whole House in 1999. These 15 peers were originally expected to serve as Deputy Speakers or hold other offices in the chamber, but they are no longer expected to.

Under the terms of an informal agreement in the House of Lords, it is expected that this vacancy will be filled by a hereditary peer who will sit as a Labour member of the House. But while Conservative and crossbench by-elections are typically competitive, Keir Starmer’s party have been struggling to find a suitable candidate, with there being a limited number of Labour-supporting aristocrats eligible to stand.

This lack of candidates makes a mockery of the already absurd system that sees these seats held back for aristocrats to choose one of their own to make our laws for life.

It is time to get rid of the archaic by-elections and scrap the undemocratic House of Lords altogether."

So before making your mind up as to whether you agree with the author, 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.

Read the rest of the ERS article here: The aristocratic by-elections continue to make a mockery out of our democracy – Electoral Reform Society – ERS (electoral-reform.org.uk)

And if you do agree with the writer's sentiments. you might want to exercise your democratic rights and sign the petition calling for its abolition while you are at it.

Electoral Reform Society (electoral-reform.org.uk)

Mike McCartney

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

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