Why we should radically reform the House of Lords instead of abolishing it
First published on iNews.
Our democratic system regularly comes under criticism for not being democratic enough. We have a monarch as head of state and a wildly outdated First-Past-The-Post electoral system for the House of Commons.
But I think a huge blind spot in attempts at democratic reform is the second chamber of the Houses of Parliament – the House of Lords.
Members of the House of Lords – called peers – don’t have to worry about working to gain enough trust with voters to continue proposing and voting on legislation. Lords aren’t able to propose legislation which affects taxation, but they can delay the passage of Bills, as they did with the Brexit Bill.
Beyond bipartisan politics
‘Peers perform a vital role’ I’ve worked with MPs and peers on various campaigns. Peers perform a vital role in parliament. They carefully review laws proposed by Government and work across the parties and with MPs to improve them. Without peers, we’d be left with a House of Commons which is often extremely preoccupied with bipartisan politics and misses the details.
Recent demands for reform of the House of Lords have centred around improving gender, ethnic, age and class diversity, removing the Bishops, and reforming expenses so that largely inactive peers can’t just pop in to claim the £305 per day of taxpayers’ money they are entitled to. The House of Lords combined expenses for peers, according to parliamentary authorities, cost the UK public £22m in 2016/2017.
Tony Blair oversaw significant reform in the 1990s which attempted to reduce the size of the House and address the worst, almost feudal hangover of hereditary peers. The Act did reduce the membership from 1330 to 669 but a major amendment was passed which retained 92 places for hereditary peers.
This simply isn’t good enough for a modern democracy. We’re already the laughing stock of our European neighbours, most of whom have embraced proportional representation in their parliaments, but having hereditary peers too adds insult to injury. Yes, plenty of hereditary peers work hard and might have the best interests of society at heart, but it’s ridiculous to have legislators in parliament who are there through (generally male) birthright and bizarre, tiny by-elections in which only other peers can vote.
There are plenty of good arguments which can be made for abolishing the House of Lords and starting again. But I believe we do need to have a second chamber to provide that collaborative, revising function, and there are a huge diversity of proposals for what that brand new second chamber could look like.
Reduce hereditary peers to 0
A Labour peer called Lord Grocott has had some success with a Bill he put forward which would end by-elections for hereditary peers, and this has gained cross-party support. Ending by-elections would mean no more hereditary peers, and they would eventually reduced to zero.
A cross-party committee of peers in the Lords in 2018 recommended that the size of the House of reduced to under 600 members (it’s currently 790) and improve proportionality of representation of the parties. If you look at the House of Commons and voteshare at general elections, the Liberal Democrats are over-represented and the Greens are under-represented in the House of Lords.
Brexit was arguably fomented by people feeling like they lack agency over their lives. With a more representative second chamber, a reformed House of Lords could play a pivotal role in taking some of the heat out of the dissatisfaction expressed by the electorate.
An effective second chamber representing the true diversity of opinion in modern British society, holding the House of Commons and Government to account, could provide an antidote to the serious democratic deficit in our parliamentary system, which has been left unable to deal with crises we face including Brexit, climate chaos and widening economic inequality.
Let’s act now to inject some much needed democracy and representation in our parliamentary system by radically reforming the House of Lords.
Tom Pashby is a campaigner on House of Lords reform and is a member of the Green Party Executive.