Sunday, 20 July 2008

What is the Problem with an Elected House of Lords?

Back in 1997 before the Labour Party was elected to power for the first time in the UK in 18 years there was much in their policy documents about their policies for constitutional reform. For a country that has had some form of democracy for a quite a long time, though only universal suffrage since 1948, the UK actually is not a very democratic country. Putting aside the fact that so much policy is made by the ultra-rich in UK society, in fact even at a base level it does not really count as a democracy. Like so many other countries in the World we have a bicameral system of parliament but the upper house, the House of Lords, is totally unelected and is made up of people, predominantly men, who have inherited their position in parliament, alongside 24 bishops from the Church of England, no other church, and then people who have been appointed for life by some politician in the past few decades. You could argue that this all frees them from political influence and that their age means that they can bring experience to the job, but the key problem for me, and for the Labour Party of 1997 is that they are all unelected.

Eleven years on, nothing has changed. There were attempts to reduce the number of inherited peers (as the lords and ladies are termed generically) or reduce their voting rights, but even that has not really come about. In 1999 the number of hereditary peers was reduced from 700 to 92, which is an improvement, but the house is still full of appointed rather than elected people. As you probably know, it is suspected that Labour, for some reason will lose the 2009/10 election, primarily because with the departure of Tony Blair they have stopped pandering to the ultra-rich as much as they used to, and money and influence turned all the media against the Brown government, even though their rivals, the Conservatives, lack any policies and seem content to simply have power handed to them. We actually might be moving into an era of policy-free politics. However much I loath Margaret Thatcher and how she totally wrecked the UK (to give her the state funeral she is now requesting would be a travesty) no-one could say she lack policies. So, in this environment, the slowly grinding steps to try to reform the House of Lords are now facing opposition from within Labour itself, because they think it may upset the electorate even further. Given that most Labour MPs think they will lose anyway, why are they bothered? I can tell you why, it is because the House of Lords is the most exclusive club in the World and even the majority of Socialists of the past were happy to become lords or ladies. Partly, I imagine, because it meant they could keep sticking their noses into politics for the rest of their lives. Full credit to Tony Benn for giving up the peerage he inherited in the mid-1960s and refusing one in his own right, though he is the one man I think this country still needs in parliament.

What angers me most is the feeble excuses which are being put forward to delay reform of the House of Lords and they show a stunningly patronising attitude to our friends and allies not only in the EU but also North America. The team supposedly leading the reform headed by Jack Straw and Lady Corston, argue reform now would be 'a knee-jerk reaction', how slow are your responses if it takes 11 years to react? In fact it is more than that as Labour was thinking along these lines back as early as 1994 and even before that. I met in the 1990s who had researched Labour's attempts in the 1970s to reform the House of Lords, so 30 years is a very slow 'jerk'. The really feeble response is that there might be split legitimacy in parliament if there was an elected upper house. I could understand this fear if nowhere else in the World had a bicameral system with both houses elected, but since Japan abolished its House of Peers at the end of the Second World War, not democratic country has an unelected second house. The Americans have had one now for over 200 years. In neighbouring countries notably France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, have elected upper houses. The Norway, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Greece, all the Balkan states except Bosnia, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine have unicameral systems, so are entirely elected. Of course we could go unicameral, but if we insist on bicameral there are scores of successful examples across Europe and the English-speaking world: Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, only New Zealand is unicameral.

Straw whines that if proportional representation was used for the upper house then members there could claim greater legitimacy to hold their seat than many of those in the lower house, the House of Commons. Well, whose fault is that? Labour was very eager to have proportional representation when it was losing during the 1980s and 1990s and then when they came to power they forgot all about it. If they had introduced it when they said, we would not now be in that situation. The other issue is that there are loads of models of an elected upper house. The nearest, i.e. the Republic of Ireland, the only state to share a land border with the UK, has an indirectly elected upper house, Seanad √Čireann is chosen by electoral colleges. The trouble is a lack of imagination on the part of the reformers. The UK could move first to an indirect model before a directly elected model, if they wanted, but even those charged with looking at reform seem stunningly ignorant of the different models available. I suppose it is the typical British thing, that as the 'mother of democracy' we have nothing to learn from ignorant foreigners who have instability leading to dictatorship. Of course this neglects how for over 60 years so many European models have worked well in securing political stability in times of upheaval. The British feel they must find a uniquely British model and given how many varieties are already in existence this leaves little to choose from. Straw's whining is pathetic. They should ask him to pay back any salary he has received from doing this work as clearly he has done less research than you and I can achieve through a Google search or a visit to Wikipedia.

The other problem is that many upper houses are based on a territorial pattern, examples include the states of the USA represented in the Senate and Germany with the Bundesrat. Belgium, Canada, India, Russia, Switzerland are other examples. Of course this would seem a good way forward now that Scotland, Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland are gaining more autonomy. However, again, despite their promises in 1997, regional assemblies for England where 83% of the UK population live, have been stillborn. Partly this is because regional identity is weak and in some areas it is on historic lines, in others on modern things like unitary authorities and these all come in different shapes and sizes. However, the other issue is that the British public do not like 'government' and feel they have no ability to shape it so they simply resist it as an extra level of bureaucracy. Thus, the parallel policy of having large geographical areas from which English senators could be elected itself has failed. A lot of this stems from the fact that so many British people are ignorant of their political system, they love historic models and would probably prefer simply the Queen in power advised by her housecarls, they have felt powerless for so many decades now too and so when reform comes about there is no engagement. Consequently the UK will struggle on with its truncated democracy, which clearly favours, rather than challenges, those who have power. Our upper house will remain an exclusive club rather than a strong tool of democracy.

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