Hands off the limited powers of the Lords!
Part of the reason for widespread political apathy and the sense of disillusion with our democracy is the accurate perception that the executive (the government) has established such comprehensive control over the House of Commons, and the powers of the more independent House of Lords are so limited, that parliament no longer performs its vital role of holding an over-mighty government to account, resisting its more illiberal excesses, and removing the tattered fig-leaf from its naughty bits. Now, instead of seeking to correct some of these harmful defects, the prime minister wants to make his strangle-hold on the Palace of Westminster even tighter.
Caught with his hands in the till over the cash for peerages scandal, Tony Blair has reportedly undergone a sudden conversion on the road to Belmarsh over the introduction of an elected majority in the House of Lords, something reformers have been demanding for almost a century (since it was promised in the 1911 Parliament Act) and for which there is a clear majority in both Houses of Parliament, but which has hitherto been resisted by our soi-disant radical reformist prime minister on the grounds that the introduction of even a minority of elected members of the Upper House would give it such new democratic legitimacy that it would constitute a threat to the ‘primacy of the House of Commons’. According to media reports, however, Mr Blair’s solution to this imaginary threat is to impose yet more limitations on the already strictly limited powers of the second chamber, perhaps even depriving it of any legislative powers altogether. According to the Telegraph website:
Tony Blair is preparing the biggest assault on the powers of the House of Lords for more than 50 years after a series of bruising battles with peers over Labour reforms. The Government plans to change the law to prevent the Upper Chamber blocking legislation that has been passed by the Commons. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, said the powers of the Lords should be curtailed as part of a wider package of reforms that could include the creation of a mainly-elected Upper Chamber.
(Never mind that the 1997 Labour Manifesto, sacred text from the Age of Innocence, pledging House of Lords reform, promised in terms: "The legislative powers of the House of Lords will remain unaltered.")
But the primacy of the Commons doesn’t depend on the second chamber continuing to lack democratic legitimacy, either because of being unelected as at present, or because of being even more powerless as Mr Blair apparently intends. Commons primacy stems from its role as the forum in which governments are chosen and sustained or rejected, where almost all ministers sit and are held to account, and which has almost unlimited powers, compared with the heavily circumscribed powers of the Lords. Anyway, it isn’t really the primacy of the House of Commons that the prime minister is so anxious to preserve: it’s the control of the House of Commons by an over-mighty executive that he wants to go on enjoying, without the inconvenience of having to get his legislation through a much more independent-minded second chamber, especially if the conferring of elective legitimacy on that chamber makes it even more independent-minded and stroppy than it is already. There’s absolutely no case for further trimming the powers of the second chamber. Once the last hereditary and appointed Lord and Lady have been removed from it, please let us call it the Senate: and tell Mr Blair to keep his cotton-pickin’ fingers off its powers, rights and role. The health of our democracy is more important than the government’s convenience.
It’s sad, too, that the national debate on the question of Lords reform is so extraordinarily parochial. We are apparently too chauvinist and too convinced of our own superiority to have a serious look at what other comparable western democracies do about their bicameral legislatures, in almost every single case more democratic and effective than ours. We could usefully learn lessons, for example, from the US and Australian constitutions, and perhaps also the German (now that we have sleep-walked half-way into becoming a federation). We could make sure of a more independent Senate by electing its members in rotation for ten-year terms, using one of the many available systems of proportional representation, thus ensuring that no one party would have an overall majority in it, and limiting membership to one or two terms, thus emasculating the Party Whips at a stroke of the scimitar. We could introduce a regional element into Senate representation to offset the variations in the sizes of the regions and nations of the UK Federation. There’s no need or case for keeping those bishops, and the judges are on their overdue way out to a separate Supreme Court anyway. The existing powers and limitations will ensure that the Commons always have the last word, in the last resort, unless the electorate decides otherwise. All this could be the equivalent of Viagra for our flagging political system.
Before leaving this dog-eared old subject, I should perhaps declare an interest: I have already set out my own views on House of Lords reform so often and at such (typical) length that I feel entitled to be excused from repeating them in detail here yet again. All right, as I have said earlier here, if you really want to know what they are, you can read what I have written in a submission to the Select Committee on Public Administration; in another, earlier submission to the Lord Chancellor’s Department; in two letters published in The Times; and in at least two previous entries in Ephems, here and here. I am happy to stand by them all. Just let us keep a firm grip on basic principles and raise the flag of resistance to this latest folly of Mr Blair’s.