Thursday, 19 May 2011

The real need for Lords reform

Never in the field of political endeavour has such little been delivered and so much promised.

I am, of course, referring to reform of the House of Lords, which is not only overdue by decades but – on the basis of what we witnessed in the “other place” on Tuesday – looks likely to become derailed by party tribalism on the part of Labour and resistance to change on the part of some Conservatives.

That Nick Clegg presented the draft Bill allowed Labour MPs the opportunity to make fun of the Deputy Prime Minister. They sense he is a figure of ridicule at the moment, and targeted him personally in the same way that the No2AV campaign sought to make mileage from his popular image as compromised and unprincipled. Forgetting their own party’s claim to be progressive, and their supposed commitment to reforming the Lords, Labour MPs opportunistically expressed resistance to the proposed reforms – more on the basis of a misguided quest to bash Nick Clegg than on any intellectual grounds.

It will be interesting to see where Ed Miliband takes the Labour Party. Many Labour MPs would love to see Nick Clegg’s Bill defeated, out of spite rather than principle, while a number of Conservatives opposed to reform will also welcome its failure. The easy tactic for such people is to deliberately allow the Bill to run out of time. Miliband showed little leadership on the issue of AV (which he ostensibly supported) and a failure to show a little more authority on this matter could lead to a similar lack of constitutional progress. If Miliband can not get his party to unite not only will Labour look like a party divided behind a weak leadership, its claims to be progressive will appear questionable at best. Progressive reformers within the Labour Party may feel the need to find a political home elsewhere.

Cameron, however, seems to understand that the reforms are necessary and – more significantly from the Conservative viewpoint – has decided that another pitched battle with the Liberal Democrats in a similar vein to the AV debate could be potentially destructive to coalition unity. He seems determined to rebuild trust between the coalition partners and ensure that Liberal Democrats retain the incentive to co-operate in government. I have far more faith in Cameron’s willingness to assert himself than I do Miliband’s, but I’m not convinced he has the ability to persuade renegade Tories to fall into line. And I suspect he will carry little weight in the Lords, where Tory peers are reported to be fiercely opposed to reform.

As yesterday’s Independent explained, it is in the interests of all three party leaderships that the Bill is successfully passed. Cameron and Clegg understand this. As for Miliband, I fear he is torn between political opportunism and his personal convictions.

In all the furore, it is easy to miss what is actually being proposed. The “revolutionary” changes are perhaps not so revolutionary. In fact, there seems to be very little objectionable in them – unless you happen to be the kind of Liberal Democrat who takes a real interest in constitutional matters. The White paper is proposing reducing the size of the second chamber (to 300) with 80 per cent of members elected under an unspecified system of proportional representation and serving 15 year terms. 20 per cent of the Lords will remain appointed, including crossbenchers and bishops, whose number will be reduced from 26 to 12. It’s broadly positive and, as all three parties made some commitments to Lords reform in their respective manifestos, should be non-controversial.

However, some legitimate questions have been raised, such as whether the proposals would create a House of Lords that is the preserve of party apparatchiks. This echoed the findings of Prof Anthony King who recently argued that a "democratically legitimate" House of Lords would "inevitably consist almost entirely of a miscellaneous assemblage of party hacks, political careerists, clapped-out retired or defeated MPs, has-beens, never-weres and never-could-possibly-bes". I can understand this concern and don’t dismiss it, but it can not be taken seriously as an objection, especially since the benches in the second chamber are currently occupied by retired party hacks, former MPs, generous donors and the like. At least under an electoral system, such individuals will be made accountable to the public. Another question was asked about the public appetite for change, citing the example of the AV referendum, but that is in some respects irrelevant. I don’t imagine that many of the public have the same interest in this issue as I do, or that they are remotely excitable by constitutional matters. But neither do they show any particular passion for much of what is discussed in either the Lords or the Commons – and I feel strongly that while interest in the detail may be limited, the public care for democracy and want their politicians to be accountable.

A third, more pertinent question, came from Frank Dobson. He asked: "Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that a sounder approach would be to decide what we want the House of Lords to do and what its functions should be before we decide how it is made up? Otherwise, we are in the situation of picking the team before we have decided what game it is going to play." A highly relevant question and one which begs a better answer than the one Clegg provided: “We already know the role of the House of Lords—scrutiny and revision”.

I was discussing this yesterday with Bob Maclennan, the former SDP leader and a proponent of constitutional reform. We both felt that the proposals set out in the White Paper do not go far enough and are particularly concerned about the continued presence of “Lords Spiritual” – i.e. bishops – in the reformed House. We’re of the opinion that this could have been handled better by the respective party leaderships, especially Labour’s. But we both also share Dobson’s view that the starting point for debate and for the shaping of a new House of Lords should be its role rather than how it is constituted. Arrogant assertions about our democratic system (however correct they might be) can not and should not be the basis for constitutional change.

Maclennan wrote last year, as part of a collection of essays in honour of Shirley Williams, a well-informed and intellectually challenging piece entitled The Lords Renewed. It was essentially a blueprint for a more accountable and democratic second chamber that. Given the current debate, it requires serious consideration – not least because it deals with the objections of Prof King and others, and provides a coherent response to Dobson’s line of questioning.

Maclennan begins his essay by insisting that “choices for reform and their probable consequences need to be made more explicit...the overriding purpose of reforming the House of Lords should be to enhance its capability, and that of parliament as a whole, to serve the public needs.” He examines the role of parliament which he describes as “not only provid[ing] decision makers for government but influence the process of decision. To accomplish this task there is a need to adapt the parliamentary institutions to equip them for the new contemporary political challenges.” He considers increased parliamentary workload merits reform; the cross-territorial impact of devolved government, the growing work of Select Committees in shadowing their departments and the increased parliamentary responsibility stemming from the Treaty of Lisbon have overstretched MPs, he argues. “The reform of the second chamber will offer the best opportunity to reconsider the functions of both chambers with a view to ensuring an appropriate division of labour”.

Having made the argument for change on the basis of pragmatism rather than democratic deficit, Maclennan turns his attention to the risks of marginalising the second chamber and it becoming a “mere echo-chamber of the House of Commons”. Considering elections, he supposes that “by election by the public the new chamber will enjoy a new democratic legitimacy” but concedes that if the subordinate role of their unelected predecessors is maintained, the new peers will be unable to tackle the problems of Commons overload and “the tendency of political power to be centripetal will not be checked.” Democratic legitimacy, in other words, is not the end game. The real purpose of reform is to strengthen parliamentary accountability as a whole, increasing the influence of the Lords and devising a more effective cross-House interface. After all, why would anyone wish to be elected to a second chamber whose role is distinctly “secondary” and subordinate to the Commons, a disempowered arm of parliament with limited legislative and investigative roles? It would only attract the kind of candidate Prof King fears.

The House of Lords has historically been merely complimentary to the Commons, but an empowered second chamber should do more than replicate the work of the Commons.. A reformed chamber must be awarded a more distinct role and have greater influence and authority. Maclennan admits that “this will depend upon its standing and the quality of the contribution of its members to scrutiny and debate”. And so, while elections are useful, and we would naturally prefer a system of PR to be used, the White Paper is ignoring the more vital question of parliamentary regeneration. It creates a reformed chamber which would be distinctly second-rate in its functions and unlikely to attract the calibre of individuals needed to ensure its effectiveness. As Maclennan wryly observes, “a smaller reformed chamber with real and discrete powers “ will “more readily attract the calibre of candidate required to improve the quality of governance”. The converse is not only true; it is a pre-requisite. The only means of avoiding the undesirable predictions of Prof King is to adapt and enhance the role of the Lords, as a body and as individuals.

Maclennan, having adequately made the case for changing the role of the House of Lords finally turns his attention to the potential lack of expertise in a reformed new body. This can be countered, he proposes, by the establishment of a Council of State consisting of a small number of expert appointees (from the political sphere and beyond) at arm’s length from the government with a rolling membership. Its role would be providing pre-legislative scrutiny and mainly advisory, including proposing amendments, “but with no power of decision or to obstruct the will of either elected chamber”.

Maclennan’s essay is both succinct and detailed. It is impressive in that it refuses to take the usual Liberal Democrat line that democratic reform is necessary for its own sake. Instead, he has a vision for a new, more accountable and fit-for-purpose British democracy in which the Lords can play a renewed and reinvigorated role. This is the purpose of constitutional reform: strengthening the way in which democracy works, not simply improving democratic structures.

Unfortunately the White Paper is largely focused on the structural. It proposes little more than the status quo with increased democratic legitimacy. It does not deal with adapting the roles of parliamentarians; neither does it examine the means by which the functions of each House can be reformed in the public interest. In this sense, the White Paper is limited in its scope and imagination and represents a missed opportunity to deal with many of the issues that will inevitably arise.

However, while those with a passion for such matters (like myself) are naturally disappointed with the scale of the reforms outlined by Nick Clegg on Tuesday, there is little doubt that they represent a welcome and overdue step in the right direction. The thrust of the government’s proposals is right, even if there has been obvious compromise in retaining the Lords Spiritual and a 20 per cent appointed chamber. It is infinitely more satisfactory than current arrangements and I genuinely hope that the Bill is passed, with Labour support. It is, after all, people like myself and Bob Maclennan who find more in principle to disagree with in the White Paper than the likes of Ed Miliband and those who oppose for opposition’s sake.

* "The Lords Renewed" is featured in Making the Difference, edited by Andrew Duff.

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