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Matthew Sinclair: Let's have elected life peers

Blogger Matthew Sinclair, a student at LSE, turns his mind to House of Lords reform.

Lord Howe is squaring up for a fight with David Cameron over the House of Lords.  The Conservatives appear to be caught in something of a bind.  They are forced to choose between attempting to maintain the ghost of an old House of Lords not designed to function without the hereditary peers and creating a new system that threatens to lose the independence and calming influence that has lent the House such distinction.

It would seem to me that the design for a reformed House of Lords should balance two priorities:

First, it should aim to ensure sufficient democratic legitimacy that when it needs to challenge the House of Commons it is able to.

Second, the Lords should not become a second House of Commons but act as a check on any ambitions of that house to reach too far, too fast.  Civil liberties are best defended by a house which is not too accountable to short term popular spirits which are easily manipulated.

Appointment fails the first test as it is too distant a mechanism to have legitimacy in public opinion when it needs to stand up to the Commons.  A normal elected chamber fails the second test as the entire house or a substantial number will often be facing re-election and, hence, unwilling to tackle majoritarian prejudices which might endanger civil liberties.  Even the US senate with its irregular election pattern has become plagued by pork and other sectional interests.  Accountability is what makes a democracy so responsive to public needs and is definitely a good thing in the lower house but making the second chamber regularly accountable as well misses out on the opportunity of having a voice to think beyond transient public fears.

I do not believe that another priority being promulgated by our Prime Minister in particular should be accepted; that the Lords should not be able to challenge the Commons.  It will take a certain maturity but MPs should accept that they are capable of errors and that having a second chamber able to force them to think again is an entirely appropriate safeguard.  It is currently difficult but entirely possible for the House of Commons to overrule the House of Lords and I cannot see a recent example, from fox hunting to the religious hatred bill to ID cards, where any reasonable person would be able to argue that it should be easier to make such changes to our liberties or democracy.  As the authority of the Lords undermined by every use of the Parliament Act they pay a heavy cost every time they oppose the Commons to the finish and I am satisfied that this is a suitable check on them overusing their powers.  If the Commons wishes to change the law that is its right but making that easier on important issues seems to serve no purpose but indulging the Prime Minister’s understandable frustration that others do not share his enthusiasm for his government’s plans.

My plan is that we create a House of Lords where members are all elected by the public but that they then serve for the rest of their lives without re-election.  At each general election all of the Lords who had died since the last election would be replaced by newly elected Lords.  Based on mortality rates for the age bracket in the Lords and the current number of Lords it would be reasonable to expect around 72 to be elected per general election.  If the average age of the Lords fell from its current level of 68 this would slow somewhat.  At 72 Lords per general election we are replacing around 10% of the House each time.  This means that the process of change would be glacial enough that long term shifts in public opinion would be reflected in the make up of the House but transient shifts in opinion would have a limited effect.  This plan appears to satisfy both of the aims set out above as the Lords are chosen by the people but are, equally, able to think beyond public opinion where necessary.  There could even be an incredibly smooth transition by treating the current House of Lords as our starting point and appointing new Lords as they pass on.  This would ensure that no current Lord needs to be dismissed and that continuity can be assured.

A mechanism for electing the Lords could be an expression of the Conservative belief in maintaining old and understood administrative units, instead of dreaming up new and remote regions, and be based upon counties.  If Lords were split between the counties, weighted for population, then they could choose a place from that area to form part of their title.  The transition mechanism here would be to have each current Lord choose, from most to least senior, a county to represent.  Those whose preferred counties had been filled up would have to move to another until all the positions were filled.  Boundary changes in response to changing population numbers could easily be accommodated by moving a Lord allocation from the county with the most electors per Lord to the county with the least and then electing from the new county the next time a Lord from the under populated county died.

I have discussed this plan extensively and seen, through flagrantly abusing the position of Chief Adjudicator of a debating competition, it argued over by some very fine debaters.  Challenges to it usually centre upon the lack of accountability and the ability this gives for the incompetent or lazy to remain as legislators.  While this may be true in some cases there are several problems with this analysis.  First, surely anyone running for the Lords would do so because they want to take part; rather than having it bestowed upon them as an honour as it is now.  Second, the current House of Lords does not appear to be filled with the serially incompetent.  Finally, all of the reasons why second term US presidents work hard at governing well apply to the Lords, they want to demonstrate their party’s effectiveness, they want to ensure a lasting legacy and they ran for office in the first place so that they could try to make a difference.  The other salient flaw pointed out is that this does not suggest a mechanism for elevating the Law Lords, however, I am happy to have them as an exception and appointed in some way.

This plan offers a way forward to creating a House of Lords which can adjust with changes in public opinion and priorities but which, through its freedom from re-election, can look past transient public fears and defend important freedoms.


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