UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS

There have been times when I’ve stuck up for the institution, often seeing it as an effective bulwark to the implementation of over-draconian legislation; indeed, when old Gideon was attempting to push through some of his worst Austerity measures, it considerably clipped his wings. Dave’s answer was to flood it with cronies in the hope the numbers would help; but doing so didn’t really do anything other than further highlight the undemocratic anachronism of a system sorely in need of either a serious facelift or absolute abolition. I’m talking, of course, about the House of Lords. The Beatles knew how many holes it took to fill it, and governments know how many life peers it takes to swing it.

At least the British Parliament only has the two Houses. The pre-Revolutionary Ancien Régime of France had an untenable trio known as The Three Estates. The First Estate represented the clergy; the Second Estate represented the nobility; and the Third Estate represented the commoners. Needless to say, the first two had a shared interest in preserving the status quo and tended to join forces to defeat the Third whenever a vote might be proposed to improve the lot of the common man at the expense of the aristocracy and the church. Perhaps it was no surprise the people eventually expressed such dissatisfaction with the system that they chopped off its head. On this side of the Channel – bar the brief period after the Civil War when the peers were kept out as the Commons conspired to kill the King – the real seat of power always rested with the Lords until belated reform plodded its way through the nineteenth century.

When Asquith introduced the Parliament Act of 1911 as a means of ending the Upper House’s power to veto Government legislation following the Lords’ rejection of Lloyd George’s 1910 Budget, peers finally seemed to accept their diminished status; rather than solely look after the interests of the gentry, the Lords instead sought to subtly temper over-zealous governments drunk on their own majorities. The dramatic reforms of the Blair Government that saw the removal of all bar 92 hereditary peers in 1999 were intended to create a more democratic chamber; but all this seems to have done is give Blair’s successors a freer hand in flooding the Lords with lobby-fodder programmed to vote with the Government. David Cameron was the worst offender, capitalising on the 1958 Life Peerages Act by creating an average of 41 peers a year during his tenure at No.10. And now an Upper House already bursting at the seams with unelected cronies is set to have its abundance of useless numbers swelled even further.

As soon as the General Election was done and dusted, rumours over a potential replacement for Nicky Morgan as Culture Secretary were quashed by the announcement that Ms Morgan would be keeping her job, despite standing down as an MP. Instant elevation to the Upper House dashed Penny Mordaunt’s hopes of a return to Cabinet and also gave the impression of ‘Tory-business-as-usual’ in the face of the Conservative Party’s overnight appeal to working-class voters. Not that this practice is unique to the Tories, mind; Gordon Brown, for example, had an unusually high number of peers in his Cabinet, enabling the likes of Lord Mandelson to stage a comeback without the need for any electorate involvement. The carrot of a peerage allegedly dangled before Shami Chakrabarti as an incentive for her whitewash on the subject of Labour anti-Semitism showed even ‘Corbynism’ is not immune to such patronage.

News of Nicky Morgan’s painless promotion was swiftly followed by the magical transformation of Zac Goldsmith from defeated MP (yet again) to life peer; and, not to be outdone, the Lib Dems are apparently toying with the idea of nominating their losing leader for the Lords, so rumours of Jo Swinson’s political death would appear to be greatly exaggerated. What this says about the democratic process in this country is something that certainly adds to the despair of those already disillusioned by first-past-the-post. Lost your seat because the people decided you weren’t up to the job? Not to worry – you can stay in Parliament, anyway; and the people don’t get a say at all! The necessity of the General Election in calling those to account who have attempted to thwart democracy for the last couple of years has a bit of a sting in its tail when a handful that the electorate booted out of one door immediately get back in through another.

Having an elected Upper House, which is usually promoted as an alternative to getting rid of the Lords altogether, would present its own problems, however; many believe most of those elected under such a system would either be beneficiaries of the same practice of patronage that already exists or would merely be drawn from the narrow gene pool that produces those who stand for election to the Commons – unless the formula for selecting peers is radically different from existing ones. And if the Upper House ends up becoming simply a mirror image of the Lower House, what is the point? Why do we need two of them?

Perhaps an elected Upper House should start from scratch by emptying the chamber of every current member and radically altering the process by which it fills up again. Maybe take it out of politicians’ hands altogether by giving every Parliamentary constituency around the country the chance to vote for the most deserving figures in each community – and anyone with any prior involvement in local government would be barred from nomination, as many of them just want to climb the greasy pole to Westminster as it is. Elect the kind of community pillars that often receive MBEs – lollipop ladies, care-workers, voluntary librarians etc. – the kind that actually contribute something to their neighbourhood other than seeing it as a stepping stone. Make the House of Lords the House of The People and make the House of Commons the House of The Political Class. There would then appear to be a valid reason for the existence of two chambers.

It goes without saying, of course, that none of this idealistic reform will happen. Why should it? What’s in it for them? Indeed, why would a Government that has just had a ‘stonking’ majority handed to it on a plate by an incomparably useless opposition feel any pressure to overhaul a system it can now exploit to its heart’s content without having to take minor parties into consideration? And why would a minor party such as the Lib Dems press for Lords reform when the Upper House contains enough Lib Dem members to at least fill a first-class railway carriage rather than the solitary taxi ferrying all of its MPs to the next party conference? As it is, we’ll probably just muddle along as per in the usual British way – or maybe wave a few pointless placards demanding reform now that the previous reason for a day out in Whitehall has been made redundant. No matter how broke it is, the need to fix it doesn’t appear to be on the ‘to-do’ list at the moment.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS

  1. Rather like the monarchy, the House of Lords is something which, if you didn’t already have it, you probably wouldn’t create it. But also like the monarchy, you’ve got to ask what’s the alternative?

    In its defence, many of its members are highly experienced in many different fields and can bring that to bear, quite cost-effectively, in the consideration and improvement of government proposals. Against that is the propensity of governments to use the Upper House as a repository for failed or time-served politicians, along with random party donors, hence the general view of its constitutional irrelevance.

    However, having a second chamber makes sense and its historical value in ensuring moderate UK government by all parties bears that out, but there must be a better way of populating it.

    I would have only half the number of ‘Lords’ as MPs (i.e. 325) and would achieve that by appointing one ‘Lord’ to oversee two nominated adjoining constituencies – that would create a linkage between ‘Lords’ and geographic population which does not currently exist, thus making each ‘Lord’ responsible for a ‘patch’. I would also limit the time served to 15 years, with no option to extend or return.

    I would then bar from that House anyone who had been a member of any political party for the last 5 years. That would at least create a gap to prevent the current ‘kicked upstairs’ process and would also open up selection to everyone in the land, not just established politicos: it could be you, it could be me, it could be that lollipop lady.

    When any ‘Lord’ died, decided to step down or reached the 15-year limit, an election would then be held in only those two adjoining constituencies to select a replacement. This pattern would ensure a continuous refresh process, rather than the sledgehammer of general elections, resulting in a more stable House but one which would then progressively change to reflect the changing scene in the land.

    Sorted.

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    1. The system of instant promotion from Commons to Lords is certainly one element that serves to play into the hands of those who want the Upper House abolished altogether. It’s an insidious practice that belittles the good work the Lords is capable of doing and does indeed need reforming ASAP. The likes of Nicky Morgan and Zac Goldsmith standing down and losing their seat respectively should’ve been the full stop on their political careers until they chose to put their names forward come the next available by-election. That aside, there’s no doubt some judicious pruning along the lines of Blair’s 1999 reform wouldn’t do any harm – if the institution is to retain any sort of palpable relevance in the 21st century, anyway.

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