Timothy Barnes: An elected Lords should not become inevitable
Tim Montgomerie has written today about the change among grassroots Conservatives, who have started to move more determinedly against an elected House of Lords. He has suggested several reasons why that might be the case, but has missed out the most obvious: They have thought about it and realised it would be a mistake.
That is not to say there is no need for reform, as that is clearly not the case. The changes the Labour government introduced, piece-meal, over ten years or more have left a mess. The question now is how to best clear it up.
Let me start by asking you to keep in mind the purpose of the second chamber. Its role today is as a revising chamber. This is a function that is sorely needed and not performed adequately elsewhere in our constitutional arrangement. It is a role that, in general, the current House of Lords performs extremely well.
As a revising chamber, the Lords does not exist to provide for the democratic will of the majority. That is the role of the House of Commons and it should retain primacy as a consequence. The Lords seeks to influence legislation in order to produce law of the highest quality and to prevent the abuse of minorities by the majority-dominated Commons.
“…you need never be alarmed at the dangers of one man’s power so long as the House of Lords endures…”
If it is agreed that the role of the House of Lords should be to revise legislation and to protect minorities, then I suggest the test for the most appropriate arrangement to carry out these objectives should, above all, be based on efficacy. What format, membership and powers would add most to the process of revising new legislation? What arrangement of the House of Lords will most benefit all of the people of Britain?
Second, the life-time nature of appointment means that there is no longer a need for members of the second chamber to pander either to the headline writers of the media or to their own party whips. Being appointed for life – nowhere else to go, up or down – allows members to do what is right and to protect minority interests without fear of losing position. They can also take the long view. No business operates successfully by only ever looking at the short-term consequences, yet that is what we ask of the elected chambers. Some regard, although not an all-powerful one, should be paid to the longer consequences and this should be done without interference from party controllers.
In an article published a couple of years ago under the title “If it isn’t Broke…”, Lord Howe, a supporter of an all appointed house, wrote that it is remarkable how party-loyalties are set aside once the burdens of electoral necessities are removed. Long-standing and loyal party members on all sides of the House of Commons discover an independence of mind on entering the House of Lords that they frequently failed to exhibit in their previous careers. The same would not be true for elected members of a revised House of Lords.
Third, appointment will always be a more straightforward method for ensuring broad representation of minorities. You do not have to go as far as saying that X% of the population is purple, therefore X% of the representatives should be purple, too. But it does mean that if particular groups of any kind are not represented elsewhere in Parliament that someone can be appointed who will be able to comment effectively and make an impact on their behalf.
So while a wholly appointed chamber is not too distant from what we have today, there is still need for reform. The number of members should be looked at and the system of appointment also needs to be altered, with a blend of party-based appointments and an independent commission that proposes members from beyond the political sphere. Lord Steel’s summary of his own proposals in the Observer, today, makes a similar point and, as Tim M said, Nick Clegg will be none too happy about that, even if Lord Steel cannot bring himself to rule out an elected chamber in the end.
Finally, it should be remembered that the alternative of an elected chamber would be dominated by the existing political parties, meaning that it would be in the control of the same party as the Commons or one opposed to it, with all manner of people claiming the same electoral mandate. In reality, this would not lead to better governance or law. Either there would be division for the sake of partisanship or a rubber-stamping agreement. There is certainly no benefit to be arrived at.
In my view, only an all appointed House of Lords adds to the effectiveness of the legislature. More elected representatives are not what is needed. More experience and a broader knowledge base is.
“We do not defend the Constitution from mere sentiment for the past, of from any infatuated superstition about divine right or hereditary excellence. We defend the Constitution solely on the ground of its utility to the people. It is on the grounds of utility alone that we go forth to meet our foes, and if we fail to make good our ground with utilitarian arguments and for utilitarian ends, then let the present combination of Throne, Lords and Commons be for ever swept away…”
- Randolph Churchill