Praise the Lords?

Katy Husband, OULC member, advocates abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an independently appointed advisory chamber. 

The mere titles of Westminster’s two chambers reflect the antiquated class distinction between the elected and appointed members. A space for those with peerage titles (as well as bishops), the House of Lords was created as a home exclusively for the land-owning aristocracy whose experience and influence was deemed superior to the common people. Not much has changed since, with the house remaining, as Tony Benn once said, a “medieval relic from a time when land ownership was a major source of political power.” As the House of Commons became more democratic with the expansion of suffrage, the people became uneasy with the non-democratic power that was blocking bills passed in the Commons. Whilst now this power has been limited to a veto, the debate surrounding the House of Lords has been bestowed on a new generation; alongside peerage titles on the sons and daughters of the old Lords.

The core objection to the House of Lords is that it is undemocratic. In an age where democracy is generally accepted to be the correct basis upon which our political systems are founded, this appointed chamber stands out, putting the UK political set-up in a league with Iran. Moreover, the type of people appointed to offer up wisdom and relevant experience are from a very narrow section of society. 54% of peers are over the age of 70, with only 2 members being under the age of 39. Only 24% are female and 44% are from London or the South East. Those representing manual occupations, policing and transport make up less than 1% of the Lords. Bishops are disproportionately represented, while Muslim representation is shamefully low. This means that not only does the Lords continue to perpetuate elitism, but it also fails to effectively provide representative knowledge and experience. The definition of “expertise” is narrowed to those individuals, mainly big businessmen, who have succeeded by exploiting the people who the Commons claims to represent; the academic elite; the upper echelons of a religion which is no longer practiced by most of our society; and ex-politicians (25% of Lords appointed since 1997 were MPs who had lost elections or resigned).

The main argument in favour of the House of Lords is that it acts as a check on government, comprised as it is by members who have no direct responsibility to the electorate and who therefore, supposedly, possess a clearer view of what is best for the country. This claim echoes Rousseau’s role for the Legislator, who knows better than the public what they really want. This, to put it frankly, is the exact kind of patronising dribble which has alienated so many working-class people from politics. The idea that a billionaire has better insight or understands the implications of cuts to tax credits more than the people affected by such cuts insults the general intelligence of the wider populace. To add further insult to injury, many of the peers do not make a habit of actually voting, unless of course it affects the vested interest of the member: Andrew Lloyd Webber famously flew back in his private jet to the UK just to vote in favour of the tax credit reform. The vested interests of the Lords were clearly highlighted in 2012 by the discovery that 1 in 4 Tory Lords were employed by commercial health providers and their lobbyists, and a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 124 out of 775 Lords have links to financial institutions.

So, what are the alternatives? One option is to completely democratise the chamber by making its members fully elected, akin to the American Senate. Members could have longer terms, meaning they would not be as heavily dependent on the electorate’s demands. However, these terms could be subject to greater scrutiny and higher standards than currently, say by insisting on a certain level of attendance. This reform could serve to remove the “complacent air of self-satisfaction” that Lord Adonis has claimed exists in the chamber. It would also alter the whole function of the House of Lords, instead making it a way to improve representation in government: minorities and fringe parties may have a greater opportunity to voice their opinions on government legislation. There is, however, a significant drawback to a fully elected second chamber, namely that it would result in power struggles between the Commons and Lords as both would lay claim to democratically representing the people.

Some have suggested a hybrid solution in order to avoid such a problem. Having both appointed and elected members would mean that the Commons could still maintain its democratic superiority, while the Lords would remain an advisory chamber. However, this still leaves the problem of the criteria by which we judge who the “experts” are and  which experts we prioritise. There is a danger that the voice of the appointed peers could be seen as more legitimate or taken more seriously than that of the elected peers.

Labour has historically opposed the very existence of such a bastion of privilege and wealth as the House of Lords. In keeping with this tradition, Corbyn has recently re-opened the debate about totally abolishing the archaic institution. He recognises the contradiction between being a party ‘for the many and not the few’ while upholding a parliamentary chamber that gives the rich elite disproportionate influence in our government. Abolishing the House of Lords is portrayed as the radical option, but really it seems more radical to keep an aristocratic block on Commons bills in our ‘democratic’ country. We could save on great expense through its abolition; not only on the costs of running the institution (which came to over £21 million between 2014 and 2015), but also on costs from voting based on vested interests, which hit the poorest in our society the hardest. We could join the likes of New Zealand and Denmark who do not have a second chamber and restore a purer form of democracy.

It seems sensible to remove this institution which, along with its name, belongs to the 14th century that created it. Instead, we should build a new body which could perform the function of an advisory council, but without the traditional baggage. This committee should be appointed independently, and wider representation should be prioritised. The body would have no actual power but could provide further insight if it were felt the Commons had not properly considered a bill. There should be, of course, a place in our system for contemplation, re-consideration, and pausing over important legislation. We do not need a House of Lords, however, to do this. The House and all its elitist heritage should be bulldozed, and replaced with a new vessel for checking the government, one which is better suited to the modern society we want to build.

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