Why the House of Lords Reform is Important but Unwanted

James Nickerson

Image © UK Parliament

By now we have all heard a lot of news about the House of Lords, its role at Westminster, and the pros and cons of reform. The coalition, last night, dropped its plans for a ‘timetable’ amidst its fears of defeat. The scale of opposition from Labour sparked these fears, but it was Cameron’s own backbenchers that put the nail in the coffin. This may have served as an embarrassment for both Clegg and Cameron, but more importantly Clegg’s fantasy of reform is simmering away.

Reform of the upper chamber is not a new concept. In fact, since the Lords was formed in the 11th century it has been continuously reformed, with arguably the most important changes occurring in the 19th century: The Parliament Act of 1911 and The Parliament Act of 1949, limiting the amount of powers severely that the Lords possess. By now, the power of the House of Lords is much inferior, and rightly so, to the House of Commons. The argument, however, has now moved on from the powers of hereditary peers to an argument against the appointment of peers.

For Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister, the House of Lords ‘lacks legitimacy’ due to its unelected status. So what does Clegg suggest we do about this problem? The House of Lords reform plans want to reduce the chamber from 826 members to 450, with the majority (80%) being elected. The other 20% (90 members) would still be appointed, on a non-party basis. These elected members would serve a 15-year term, instead of being life members. Spiritually, the number of bishops from the Church of England would decrease from 26 to 12.

From the coalition’s point of view, this cannot be seen as anything but a defeat. Cameron, ultimately, could not achieve the numbers that he needed. Reportedly, around 100 backbenchers, led by Jesse Norman, would rebel against these proposed changes. It is convenient that Sir George Young, the leader of the Commons, would place blame on the Labour opposition, and that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, would shout about opposition for opposition’s sake. Clegg, however, has taken the view that it is ‘a plague on both their houses’.

This doesn’t come as a surprise given that Clegg seems to have lost his authority and needs to place blame somewhere else. It may not have occurred to him that opposition is not a plague, but simply exists for good reason. The suggestion of reform for the House of Lords is an important one, but not a necessary one. It is one that is constitutional, and as a result of convention, must be considered by the Commons as a whole. What does this mean? The idea of reform will monopolise the time of the lower chamber, threatening the coalition mandate as a whole, given there is not a time limit.

This is certainly likely to be the case given that the rebels will attempt to filibuster: talk at length about the mundane features of the reform, in order to force the government to run out of patience and drop the reform. This is especially likely given the Conservative rebels include Maastricht veterans, who know what they are doing when it comes to drawing up as many amendments as possible. This also has important implications for other large issues at hand, such as the Eurozone crisis, owing to the fact there will be less time for this to be discussed.

To what this means for the coalition. This could cause a huge rift, given that as Liberal Democrat David Laws states, a coalition involves a deal of compromise. This is particularly probable if, as Margaret Beckett states, the reform is now likely to be defeated. Clegg even accepts this: given that there is no timetable, the legislation will not go through. On the other hand, it may buy more time for debate such that Labour MPs support the amendments.

The potential reform of the House of Lords is therefore important in terms of what it does means for the dwindling influence of Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, who achieved a mere 9 percent in the latest polls. It is also important in the way it proves that the Conservative backbenchers and backbenchers as a whole, still have a huge voice in Parliament. It is important, as well, due to how it could take up all the time of the Commons and consequently cause a problem for Parliament, and the coalition in particular.

Most importantly, however, it is important because even though debate is good, the potential reform would lead to terrible consequences for Parliament. Clegg’s largest cry for a more accountable Lords is a false one: elections are clearly important to legitimacy, yet there are other factors that influence it. For one thing, the Lords is actually more diverse than the Commons, having a higher percentage of women, and a larger number of female speakers, for example.

It is the opinion of many that the government process is too bureaucratic and slow. Fundamentally, this reform will only make this worse. Given that both Houses would claim a democratic mandate, gridlock is the only result. An elected Senate has barely worked effectively in the US, so why do we assume it would work here? Far from being ineffective, the House of Lords has worked extremely well; it defeated the last Tory government on 289 occasions and the Blair government on 450 occasions. It appears that the Liberal Democrats are either wishful for change for change’s sake, or merely want something to show for their time as part of a government.

The commons, let alone the coalition, has come in to massive dispute over this potential reform. If this is characteristic of our elected House, do we really wish both Houses to be elected? Having a bicameral Parliament has proved extremely successful for the UK, and by no means should this change. Reform of the Lords is not a bad thing in itself, but on this occasion, would lead to dreadful consequences. Proponents argue that this reform will end cronyism. Few would support cronyism, but there is more than an inclination to state that this reform will do more to harm the legislative process than help it.

There are important events occurring in the world at the moment, from the economic struggles, to ongoing wars, and more specifically to the UK; welfare reform. Although it might be thought that these are all more important than the possible reform to the Lords, time would show how imperative this reform is given its impacts on the legislative process and the effective functioning of Westminster. More immediately, there are going to be clear implications for each of the three major parties. Miliband will find his role is pivotal, whilst Cameron and Clegg will have to find a way to resolve a possible dispute whilst also saving face in the eyes of the public.

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