94 years of equivocation and "the Eastenders factor"
Ninety-four years ago today, the 1911 Parliament Act was passed, stating the following:
"And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it is at present exists a second chamber constructed on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation"I'd imagine that most people would consider "not immediately" to mean "relatively soon" - not "the best part of a century". So today is Lords Reform Day, and I have agreed to post about it to raise awareness of the fact that we're still working with a half-arsed parliamentary system. (Other bloggers' views are being collated here.)
The most important fact to consider is simply that the House of Commons does not have either the time or the manpower sufficiently to debate and scrutinise every piece of legislation which passes through its doors - especially under the current, legislation-happy government.
This is why we have Select Committees. This is why All Party groups are formed. This is why we now have Westminster Hall debates, running parallel to those in the main chamber. This is also part of the reason for the party system, the whips, even for the Cabinet and post of Prime Minister. All of these exist, at the most basic level, to enable the proper scrutiny, debate and prioritisation of bills and their various amendments.
But the Commons STILL hasn't got the time or the manpower to analyse everything which affects this country - European Union legislation being the prime example. You don't have to be a eurosceptic to agree that directives issued in Brussels should be properly examined before being put into force, or to see that an body not directly involved in drawing up the legislation is more likely to be able to take a more objective view of the implications.
The Commons currently has no time or real framework to discuss EU legislation. Hell, it barely has time to read its own legislation or prepare properly for its own debates - witness the much-lauded performance of the recently-departed Robin Cook in the Scott Report debates in 1996. He was given just two hours to read and digest 2,000 pages of dense material and prepare his argument attacking the Major government. He succeeded, but such fortitude and intellect is rare amongst MPs.
The Lords, however, in part due to its larger membership (even if this has been drastically reduced since January 1999, when there were 1,165 active members), in part thanks to the lack of pressure from constituency work, finds far more time to analyse what the EU is up to - spotting and making public potential problems BEFORE they become official. Even if no one ever pays any attention...
The House of Lords European Communities Select Committee, set up in 1974 on the advice of the Maybray-King committee, is just one example of the vital yet largely unknown work that the upper House conducts on a daily basis. It is not all old men in grey suits droning on amidst red leather luxury, nor is the Lords' sole function to hold up legislation.
Yet the holding up of legislation is also absolutely vital to our democracy. Especially in times of a government with a large Commons majority, bad legislation (ID cards, detention without trial etc. etc. etc.) could otherwise be sped through with even more ease.
It was with the 1832 Great Reform Act, bringing in popular elections (if not universal suffrage) and disciplined political parties, that the Lords became a reviewing and suspending body. But the Conservatives ended up with a majority in the Lords, and this was where - as so often - the problems started. When the Liberals' 1909 "People's Budget" (with its strangely Blairite name) was thrown out via the Conservatives' Lords majority, a crisis was provoked.
And so we see the real key to the problem - party politics and outright majorities.
After various proposals (like the 1917 Bryce report) and various new changes (like the 1949 Parliament Act, 1958 Life Peerages Act, and 1963 Peerage Act), in 1968-9 an inter-party conference finally came to some relatively sensible decisions:
1) the second chamber should complement but not rival the Commons
2) hereditary membership should be eliminated
3) no one party should possess a permanent majority
4) powers should be restricted - especially regarding subordinate legislation
5) membership should be divided between voting and non-voting peers.
The Lords, being fully aware that their position was increasingly anachronistic in an age of hippies and women's lib, acknowledged that the proposals were in the best interest of the country and - as they did again in 1999 when the hereditary peers voted to abolish themselves - acted like the proverbial turkeys, voting in favour of the House of Lords Reform White Paper by 251 to 56.
But then petty politics got in the way again. The Commons rejected the White Paper, despite all parties having previously agreed, after a filibuster from a cross-party coalition opposed to the then government's position on proposed UN Sanctions on Rhodesia. Which, let's face it, had very little to do with the future of British democracy - but such is the nature of parliamentary politics - point-scoring against one's political opponents is often just as important as actually getting things done.
And this is why - even though this "Lords Reform Day" has been promoted by the Elect the Lords campaign, I cannot advocate an elected upper chamber.
If we accept that the Lords' prime purpose is to scrutinise legislation that will affect the country, identifying flaws and oversights and suggesting possible remedies. If we accept that their prime purpose is to ensure that we end up with the very best laws possible, I do not think that this can be done within a party-political system. And that is what - if we had an elected upper House - we would end up with, because elections cost time and money. Those standing for election would need the kind of support that only a party could provide.
Once you accept party support and allegiance, you lose a certain amount of independence - party support does not come for nothing. They will expect you to help them out in return, and will cut off funding and support if you refuse to comply.
Likewise, once you are beholden to an electorate, and rely on re-election to maintain your position, you are less able to act on your conscience, instead having to second-guess what the people who will be voting for you might want. And the people most certainly do not always know what is best - witness the fact that The Sun is Britain's most popular daily paper. The customer is NOT always right - often, as anyone who has ever dealt with customers will tell you, the customer is not only entirely wrong but also an absolute twat.
The US Supreme Court works largely because those appointed to it are appointed for life. The judges can therefore criticise the sitting government's proposals based exclusively on their expert interpretations of the constitution, with no fear of any kind of reprisals - either through party whips and funding being withdrawn or at the ballot box. The only problems with the Supreme Court appear to arise when it is perceived to become imbalanced, so that conservative interpretations of the constitution outweigh progressive ones, or vice versa.
This is yet another example of how, in a body whose prime purpose is to act as a check on the government of the day, overall majorities of one viewpoint are a BAD THING. With elections - even staggered elections over extended periods based on proportional representation systems - overall majorities can be hard to avoid.
An imbalance of opinion is, however, somewhat easier to achieve with the US Supreme Court than it would be with the House of Lords as there are only nine judges, yet hundreds of peers. It took Tony Blair nearly eight years to appoint enough life peers to give Labour more lords than any other party, but even so he hasn't managed to gain an overall majority, and the presence of the unaligned Cross-benchers (about a third of the total) should ensure that this never happens.
There's another useful comparison from our own country - the Bank of England. Since the 1998 Bank of England Act, the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee has had sole right to set the UK's interest rates, working to promote price stability and economic growth entirely independently of the government. As with the US Supreme Court, none of the Committee's members have been elected - they are there by dint of having been recognised as experts in the field by their colleagues. As with the US Supreme Court, the Committee does not necessarily act in the interests of the government, but in the interests of the country.
And it is this - "the interests of the country" which is how the Lords should (and usually does) act. Thanks to their lack of need for party support or to suck up to the electorate, peers who sit for life can act on their conscience. The honour of having been recognised as worthy of a peerage simply underlines the fact that peers should act with honour - this is not an appointment based on who spent the most on advertising or who managed to find more dirt on their opponent but, technically at least, on merit.
The peers are not just some schmuck who managed to suck up to the right person at party HQ - like the majority of MPs. They are supposed to be the country's best and brightest. They include experts in almost every field on which the government may legislate: economics, law, science, media - you name it, there are members of the House of Lords who are world-leaders on the subject at hand. Would we be able to ensure such a spread of expertise through election? Such independence?
If we accept the very first point - that the Commons doesn't have the time or manpower to properly examine all legislation - then we can accept that Lords exists to scrutinse. To properly scrutinise, you need people who know what to look for. Some random bloke who stands for election is not necessarily going to know what to look for. So we need the very best, the people with the most expertise in every area going. The Lords does not need democracy - it needs meritocracy.
And so the solution to how to appoint the Lords? Well, the 1917 Bryce report proposed a House three-quarters elected indirectly on a regional basis, one quarter chosen by a joint standing committee of both houses, with a proportion of hereditary peers and bishops. I'd obviously ignore the elected part. I'd scrap the hereditary peers. I'd scrap the majority of bishops (although as long as the church remains established we'd need a few in there - but we'd also need leading expert representatives from all the other major religions in this country to help scrutinise religious legislation).
So we'd be left with the joint standing committee of both houses to make appointments. That would remove the Prime Minister's patronage issue and so prevent the ability of the government of the day to whack its buddies in the upper House and then give them high-powered jobs (Lord Adonis, anyone?). It would enable debate and scrutiny of every potential member to ensure that they are up to the standards required. It would maintain a cross-party make-up, and be able to bring in non-parliamentary experts to advise on the qualifications of potential new peers. And once its decisions had been made, appointments would remain - bar disciplinary procedures allowing expulsion which would probably be sensible - for life.
It is only with a meritocratic system in the Lords that legislation can be properly examined. Rushing towards a democratic system simply for the sake of democracy is not only foolish, but dangerous. The electorate is easily distracted and confused and, given a straight choice between voting for the world's leading biochemist or someone who used to be on Eastenders, we all know that they'd likely opt for the latter. And as much as Martine McCutcheon may have a lovely bubbly personality and a surprisingly OK singing voice, I wouldn't trust her to examine my shit, let alone a bill proposing a broad range of new legislation for the pharmaceuticals industry.
And that, in short, is why the Lords should not be elected - the Eastenders factor. We've got enough democracy with the Commons - and people hardly bother to vote for that.
(We'll leave the lack of separation of powers and the lack of a directly-elected executive for another time, I think...)