Sunday, 8 July 2012

House of Lords Reform – Overdue but Hardly a Priority

MP’s will vote on Tuesday (10 July) on the House of Lords Reform Bill, which rather modestly seeks to have 80% of peers elected by 2025, with the remaining 20% appointed by a statutory appointments commission, and reducing the total number of representatives in the upper chamber from 826 to 450. Elections would take place on the same day as the general election on an open-list system from eight different regions. The open list system is designed to give voters a choice between voting for a party and individuals.

Up to 100 Tory MP’s have said that they will vote with Labour to defeat the ‘programme motion’ which would put a limit on debate in the House of Commons to a maximum of 14 days, therefore throwing  into doubt  whether the bill will pass through the Commons at all. Opposition can also be expected in the House of Lords itself, where there are considerable numbers of Tory peers unhappy with the proposals.

The last Labour government began Lords reform, in a piecemeal, incremental way, first abolishing most of the hereditary peers, and then finally moving to a fully appointed chamber after a few more years. Clearly, in a democratic system, the hereditary principle had to go, and appointing peers is not much better, and so further reform is necessary. In my opinion all members of the upper house should be elected, and by a fairer, proportional system which reflects the diverse support for each of the political parties, including us Greens.

Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader is desperate for some kind of enduring ‘legacy’ for his deputy premiership and as some kind of justification for his party’s participation in the coalition government with the Tories. It is hard to see what progressive gains they have achieved thus far, so it is easy to understand Clegg’s determination to push this through and claim credit for the policy. Indeed, he has gone so far as to suggest that if the Bill does not pass, he will withdraw his MP’s support for the parliamentary boundary changes that the Tories want to improve their prospects at the next general election.

A recent Yougov poll for The Sun newspaper indicates that 76% of the British public support a fully or mostly elected House of Lords, but goes onto to say that only 18% regard Lords reform as an urgent matter. This seems about right to me, it is impossible to defend an unelected House, but it is pretty low on my list of political priorities at the moment. So many other issues, the state of the economy, jobs, welfare reform, privatisation of the NHS, climate change, public service cuts and education policy all dwarf constitutional reform at the moment in terms of importance.

If the price of losing Lords reform is the blocking of the parliamentary boundary changes in the Tories favour, then bring it on. And if this puts further pressure on the ConDem coalition government, perhaps even bringing about its early demise, as some have suggested, so much the better.          

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