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Lee Rotherham: No need for Clegg's Samson solution to Lords reform

It was, of course, inevitable that the Lib Dem leadership would swiftly grab at any flotsam from AV. House of Lords’ reform – and I use the term as loosely as talk of electoral "reform", since it is not automatically for the better – now looks like being part of the new agenda. Mr Clegg is now reportedly running his finger along the edges of a garden shed of possible tools, the intention possibly being to mow rather than trim the ermined ranks.

Allow me to save the Government some time. If it has to be so, and only if it has to be, the system can already be changed overnight – and without massive constitutional upheaval.

Rather than plot the demise of a Chamber that has been so out of touch with the public mood that it expressed concerns over the Lisbon Treaty, tripped up ID cards, or more sinfully suggested a minimum turnout to change the voting system, there is a mechanism that might work by evolution rather than by revolution, and without necessarily creating in the Upper House a greedy twin of the Commons.

Why not simply modify the manner in which peers are appointed? Over the course of a Parliament, it could be more closely attuned to share of vote in the last General Election.

Informal PR applied to new appointments could thus also in some small measure increase turnout, in that national voting trends would themselves later count in some manner, even if locally you lived in a safe seat. It wouldn’t be a huge motivator, but then it wouldn’t empower a rival Chamber to the same extent either.

Cue an argument now on minimum thresholds and whether the BNP "deserves" representing. But then nominations would still be dependent on the approval of the PM, who would retain a veto before submitting the list to the Palace for its own potential block. You might alternatively argue that having a couple of their spokesmen in Parliament, here as in the European Parliament, is in itself a salutary lesson and experience for the electorate; and indeed there are important fundamentals of democracy at play as well. ConHome readers will no doubt have many a view on this point.

In any case, the Cross Benchers deserve more serious consideration than has occurred to date. The so-called "People’s Peers" farce appropriately enough first appeared as a front page on an April Fool’s Day. Meanwhile, the role of the bishops has also been understated in the past. While at times one might challenge them from a personal vantage point as misguided in their activism or turbulent, there is surely merit in having a moral voice directly engaged in policy review (particularly one with first hand experience of the issues at hand). Rather than cut the numbers of the latter, it would make greater sense to continue and extend the principle of an informal permanent place for other moderate faith leaders (including incidentally any Cardinal who could square his respective issues of allegiance).

The House of Lords has changed a lot over the past few years, and it has lost a lot in the process, including some of its most dedicated and useful members. A cull by lottery, one of the mooted suggestions, has a heady air of Bolshevik end of era melodrama – but that’s all that it has going for it. Even comparatively mild changes such as I've suggested carry what may prove a serious price tag over the longer term. But the danger now (as ever with changes to the red benches) is a policy driven by spite, rather than by any common sense.


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