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Theresa May MP: Why we are the democrats and Labour are the reactionaries

Maytheresa Theresa May is MP for Maidenhead and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

How much people trust politicians is a well-rehearsed debate.  How much politicians trust people receives less attention, although it matters just as much.  Tonight, we’ll find out just how much MPs trust the people, when they vote on the future of the House of Lords.  Should it be accountable to the people, through democratic elections, or should it remain in the hands of the party elites, through patronage and political appointments?

The House of Commons will vote on a series of options for reform of the House of Lords.  MPs will first decide whether the Lords should be abolished or retained, and then vote on a series of proposals, ranging from an entirely appointed to an entirely elected upper chamber, with a variety of mixtures in between. 

The timing of the vote is not auspicious.  It comes at a time when the Prime Minister has been interviewed by the police and his aides have been arrested and questioned under caution.  The public might have thought that the “cash for honours” scandal would bring an end to the parties’ power of patronage.  After all, Tony Blair once said: “the prime ministerial patronage should go”.  But they’d be wrong. 

Although it is allowing MPs a free vote, the Government has brought forward its own proposals.  Its white paper recommends that the House of Lords should be twenty per cent appointed by a Statutory Appointments Commission, thirty per cent appointed by the political parties, and fifty per cent elected, with members elected through a “list” electoral system, representing large European region constituencies. 

Jack Straw, the minister tasked with reforming the Lords, likes to paint the proposals as a sensible compromise that will make the House more democratic.  But in reality, they are a messy compromise between divided ministers, and far from making the Lords more independent, they will leave it in the hands of the parties. 

Yes, half of the new peers would be elected.  But they would be elected using a “list” electoral system, which effectively means that the parties get to choose who is elected and the peers would owe their places in the Lords to their party bosses.  Voters would be left with a crude choice between parties, and have no relationship with their elected representative.  In elections to the European Parliament, where “list” systems are used, nine out of ten voters have no idea who their MEP is.  The Government’s proposals might be a nod in the direction of democracy, but Labour’s version of democracy empowers the parties, not the people.

Those who favour a system of appointment claim that such a system enhances the expertise of the members appointed.  But does democracy really leave us with less qualified legislators?  If that were the case, there would be a case to be made against local elections, a democratic House of Commons, and elected governments.  Even putting aside this important principle, how would one decide which interests and groups should be represented?  Political representation should be just like the economy: just as a company’s appropriate market share should be left up to the market, the correct composition of Parliament should be left up to voters.

It would be churlish to claim that Labour is the only party with differing views within it.  There is a range of opinion in all of the main parties, and it’s sensible that Parliament will be entitled to a free vote.  But the proposals put forward by Jack Straw reflect the obvious divisions in the Cabinet.  There are many in the Cabinet who rightly think that the Lords needs to be more democratic, and indeed, Labour has committed to democratic reform in all of its recent manifestos.  But there are several Cabinet ministers – including those at the very top – who have long opposed democratisation.

When Parliament voted on Lords reform last, in 2003, Douglas Alexander, Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt, voted for a wholly elected House of Lords.  It has since emerged that Hilary Benn supports them.  But tellingly, Tony Blair, Jack Straw and John Reid disagree: they voted for a wholly appointed Lords.  Indeed, according to one former Labour minister, during the 2003 House of Lords votes, it was “an open secret that [Tony Blair] had ordered the whips to mobilise votes to stop any reform that reduces his power of patronage by nominating Lords.”  In this instance, it is New Labour’s old guard which represents the “forces of conservatism”, and blocks democratic reform.

We have no better judge than the Prime Minister himself of what a messy compromise Jack Straw is presenting.  Just four years ago, he said: “Do we want an elected House, or do we want an appointed House? I personally think that a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work.”  Now the Government is putting forward proposals he himself has described as “wrong and will not work”.

But at least Tony Blair was candid.  On this, as with so many other issues, the man who wants to succeed him has been rather more of a mystery.  Since 1997, there have been 21 House of Commons votes on the future of the House of Lords.  Gordon Brown has not voted once.  It will be interesting to see if, this time, the Chancellor gets off the fence – or if he’s more interested in not offending his leadership electorate.

For our part, we have always made it clear that we would support reforms that create an upper Chamber that is capable of challenging and revising legislation, that is democratic and accountable, and that is expert and independent.  The Government’s proposals would not give the Lords the legitimacy to challenge and revise legislation, they would leave it accountable to the political parties, not the people, and in so doing, they would undermine the independence of the House of Lords. We oppose the Government’s proposals because, far from strengthening Parliament, they weaken it.

Jack Straw likes to say that if his reforms do not progress, we won’t have another opportunity for a generation.  Even if this were true – and it is not – that is no reason to support bad reforms.  We oppose the Government’s proposals not because we are opposed to reform, but because we are opposed to bad reform.

A century ago, the Conservatives opposed House of Lords reform because they defended the powers of the hereditary chamber.  They were called “ditchers” and “diehards”.  We oppose these reforms not because we are ditchers and diehards but because we are democrats.  And in continuing to support the principle of patronage, Labour are the reactionaries.

Related links: Lord Strathclyde on The proposed reforms to the Lords are quintessentially New Labour and Dan Hannan MEP on End of the (appointed) peer show.


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