In his book ‘Heroic Failure: Brexit And The Politics of Pain’, Fintan O’ Toole concludes that the UK:
“cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change.’
‘[the]model of the British state is sanctified by the vestiges of explicitly pre-democratic forms of rule — the monarchy and the unelected House of Lords.”
But what does the House of Lords actually do? If I had a pound for every time I heard someone say that I would have nearly seven pounds.
In one line, the House of Lords is the second chamber of Parliament and has the power to suggest changes to legislation sent to them by the MPs in the House of Commons.
Sometimes this process is thought of as ‘correcting the homework’ of the House of Commons. But, the House of Lords can not override the Commons when it comes to making primary laws. This is because the Commons is elected at general elections by us and the Lords are just appointed. If the Lords could override the elected commoners, we would not live in a democracy. It would be something else.
Without going over old ground, governments have been trying to reform the Lords for ages — at least a century. I will now try to summarise this century of debate:
- “I can’t believe the House of Lords is unelected. It’s an outrage in this day and age.”
David Lloyd George, Liberal Party 1911.
- “I can’t believe the House of Lords is unelected. It’s an outrage in this day and age.”
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Party, 2011.
And the argument against reform has always gone something like this:
“Well, to be fair to the Lords, there is actually a lot of expertise there from people who don’t want the hassle of running in an election. And we should spend our time thinking about schools or hospitals, the First World War or Brexit, and not waste time fiddling with the House of Lords. People don’t want to elect more politicians. It works fine as it is.”
The Establishment, Always.
But I think the House of Lords could save us. It could make our democracy and our system of government better. To do this, we should bring it into a sort of public ownership.
The UK has one of the most centralised governments in the world. We elect MPs to renew Trident and councillors to change bin collection days. There is nothing in between, and nearly everything is done at Westminster. (Except the three devolved governments and an asymmetrical system of mayors which I will come to).
In the UK, about 80% of tax money is spent by the central government in Westminster. Whereas in Spain this is about 30%. This means that in Spain, just as an example, government for regions (called autonomous communities) and their equivalents of city/county councils can spend taxpayer’s money in what, they view as, the best way for the local area. Then they are held to account by voters, as you do with any other politicians.
This is not an article advocating for regional assemblies in the UK. But there is a problem of representation in this country. The ‘First Past The Post’ voting system used at our general elections means a lot of voters waste their vote because they live in safe seats. And without any other serious, yet accessible, level of government, it is not hard to imagine that some British people feel unrepresented.
The UK has had almost exactly the same system of government since 1707. All that has changed since then is an expansion of who can vote for MPs at General Election to poor people, women and young people. There has been no real change in the actual system.
This is good in some ways. But one of the repeated reasons given for the Brexit vote is that it was an ‘anti-establishment’ vote. It is now common wisdom to say, ‘people were motivated to vote Leave because the government was not listening to them, and it was the only opportunity for those that thought they were being ignored to be listened to.’ Well, we’re all listening now.
The UK is also, at times, absurdly asymmetrical. Scottish residents, with their vote to elect MSPs to what is now a quite powerful parliament (it can now change various taxes), are more represented than people in Wales which has a less powerful assembly, Northern Ireland that has an assembly that has been suspended for over two years, and England which, as a nation equivalent to Scotland, has no political representation whatsoever.
At the same time, there is a general point to be made about the House of Lords. It continues to exist in its present form — a hodgepodge of aristocrats, retired politicians, friends of retired politicians and genuine experts in their field— because no compelling vision has been given for what it could or should be. Criticism is mostly about it being ‘unelected’ but we talk less about which people should be elected, by who and for what purpose. In this sense, the House of Lords should be viewed as a blank canvas.
So here is an idea.
Reform the House of Lords so it represents the people of the UK better. So it represents our entire economy and culture better. And it represents our citizens, nations and regions better. Let’s reform the House of Lords so the public feels it belongs to them and it represents the confusing and shifting multiple identities of these islands. Let’s reform the House of Lords so it improves how people feel about democracy, that that they could have influence over it and use it as a new mechanism to air their views meaningfully — or even be in it. And let’s reform the House of Lords so expertise is a condition and not an accident.
All whilst never stepping on the toes of the House of Commons which is and will always be superior. The concept that the Lords ‘marks the homework’ of the Commons is good, but let’s change the profile and motivation of the people who do the marking. The House of Lords could be reformed so that voters in the UK have different types of representation.
This is the ultimate question. What is the current point of the House of Lords? Is it to provide representation of some sort? Or is it to provide expert marking of MP’s work? The question has various answers because we never took the time to design it, make it efficient or optimal. Maybe our government would be better if we took the time to improve it. Maybe the people would feel better about their own government if we took this time.
I propose four types of Lord:
This comes with your day job. For as long as you have the role in real life you can sit in the Lords. Examples include:
- Research scientists, PhD students, Professors nominated or elected by universities.
- Trade Union Representatives
- Representatives from SMEs and Large Enterprises — from workers to management
- Trade Associations key to the British economy including Royal Societies and Chartered Institutes
- Representatives from the farming sector and from rural communities
- Bishops and leaders of other religions and none.
- Cultural leaders — from the organisers of Notting Hill Carnival to the Edinburgh Fringe.
- Police and Crime Commissioners
- NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (or equivalent)
- Representatives from pressure groups and charities, from Amnesty International to The Salvation Army
- Businesses or social organisations that are owned or ran democratically. From John Lewis and Richer Sounds to fan-owned football clubs.
And many more I may, perhaps through my own bias, have missed.
Political scientists among you may think this resembles ‘Corporatism.’ Briefly defined as the domination of society by powerful groups. However, Lords from the above organisations would sit alongside individuals representing themselves or their expertise, as well as geographical non-constituency areas like ‘Cornwall’ (see below). So I would say there is no domination of groups here, we are merely trying to get the UK’s different peoples, groups and communities to talk to each other better and reform the membership of those who mark the homework of the real democrats — MPs in the Commons.
2. Elected by non-constituency areas
Elected for terms of 5 years. To represent non-constituency areas such as cities, regions and nations.
For example, Nottingham has 11 constituency MPs spread across the county and the city. Citizens could also elect a Lord to represent the ‘City of Nottingham’, ‘Nottinghamshire’, the ‘East Midlands’ region, ‘England’ or the even more historical areas like ‘Mercia’.
Lords for ‘Cornwall,’ East Anglia’ England’ and ‘The Peak District’ can all be elected. And they will overlap. Overlapping is fine because it already exists. Only MPs in the Commons need a strict, definitive and exclusive boundary of a constituency because it is from this connection that their sovereign, democratic and superior mandate is born. But it would be fine for a Lord for ‘England,’ and a Lord for ‘The East Midlands’ to have productive opinions on HS2 legislation based on their own area of representation before sending it back to the Commons. After all, if we’re going to have an asymmetrical political system, then at least let’s make it relevant and useful.
Elected Lords will sit in the Lords to debate legislation from the points of view of these areas they represent. By definition, they will have a different perspective on the problems of different areas, above or below the constituency, and how they interlink with other areas or issues, unforeseen or unrepresented in the Commons. This would widen democratic representation across the country and open another door for citizens to lobby or raise their concerns if they feel their MP isn’t listening, or if their MP says ‘this issue is not relevant to my constituency.’
But it would not infringe on the ultimate democratic primacy of MPs who represent their constituents in the House of Commons and make the constitutionally superior decision when it comes to lawmaking. Elected Lords are there to mark their homework only.
This would broadly remain as now, appointed by parties. The appropriate reform to make would be that appointments must be explicitly in the public interest. This is to ensure people who may not fancy running in an election like Doreen Lawrence and Tanni Grey-Thompson are still recognised.
But for reform to work, cronyism must be held at bay. Of course, you could write a convincing paragraph to justify anything is in the public interest, so it would require the Appointments Commission, which endorses Lords for an appointment, to be fully independent of government, and able to operate with its own charter and rules. Like the BBC.
The Appointments Commission would need to be powerful enough to reject appointments if the nominee is not sufficiently justified as being in the public interest — if it smelt, felt and sounded like cronyism without public benefit.
Yes, some of these would be former politicians, there’s nothing wrong with that, they can be beneficial. But at least there is a) a system in place for why they are there and b) do not dominate the composition and are part of a wider, more varied, membership.
Currently these ‘working’ or ‘people’s peers’ are there for life. This should not change as long-term thinking should be encouraged. Retirement or de-appointment for criminality or misconduct should, of course, be possible and appropriate power vested in The Appointments Commission.
The revolution will not be televised. 90% of hereditary lords were abolished under New Labour and 10% remained after arduous negotiation and ultimately compromise. Like it or not the United Kingdom’s story is of many things — including aristocracy. House of Lords reform is about better representing and better governing the country so these, currently 91, Hereditary Lords should stay. Besides, they are voted in by the hereditary community — an example pour encourager les autres.
Location and size
These four types of Lord could be in similar numbers — but this can be flexible. Like now, most Lords will only attend debates sporadically or when relevant. Cutting down the numbers for the sake of it is not an end in itself. There are 755 Lords at the moment and you’d save a bit of money if this was reduced. But reform should be a positive act where we broaden and optimise the membership of those marking the homework. It shouldn’t just be yet another victim of swingeing cuts.
And it can all sit in the beautiful palace of Westminster, its home. But it can also travel and help engage the people in the spirit of democracy, representation and expertise.
It can take 3 days of debate to Grimsby and Lincolnshire. Regionally elected Lords from Cornwall can host proceedings when they visit their county. A special sitting can take place during the opening of Blackpool Illuminations and the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, so no citizen will miss the opportunity to see the institution of Parliament in action.
And when they come back to London after meeting the people and our communities, who may or may not have felt historically marginalised, they can use these experiences to mark the homework of the Commons better. Make our laws better and our government think again, better. And the mother of Parliaments will be a little less dusty, a little less dimly lit and a little less alien.
The House of Lords Effect
The current House of Lords effect is something that other countries struggle to replicate but, if asked, might like to draw on. Legislatures and second chambers around the world suffer increasingly from permanent gridlock and hyper-partisanship yet the current House of Lords stands out with many independent non-partisan ‘expert’ members adding value but unable to block legislation repeatedly proposed by the superior Commons.
Its life membership offers the breathing space to stand back from the short-termism that plagues so much of the government’s decision making. I am complimenting the current House of Lords which is why I have not argued for it to be scrapped or totally elected.
But the painful crisis the UK is now experiencing is despite the House of Lords’ positive attributes. We should embrace the spirit of expertise and potential for different types of representation in this place as the first positive step into a new era.
Brexit could bring a sort of ‘zero hour’ in British history without similar precedent. At that crucial time, we should neither forget the strengths of our system nor ignore the great blind spots the political class has which in large part brought about the causes of Brexit. Most importantly, we should have a vision to create a government in a public, robust and relevant way. The House of Lords is an obvious catalyst for this change.