Two tiers for democracy

Published: 07/11/1999   by: Article published in The London Times: 9 November, 1999

With the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to automatically claim a seat in the legislature of this country, phase one of the Labour Party's reform of the House of Lords is complete. 800 years of tradition has been ended without so much as a murmur from the electorate. The only voices raised in support of the status quo came from the hereditaries themselves — remaining true to their ancient tradition of protecting their own interests right to the very end. Even the raving Lord Burford will not be campaigning for their restoration in his run against Michael Portillo. In keeping with their lordships reputation for eccentricity, he will be standing for the Democracy Party.

As the vanquished noblemen return to the shires, attention turns to the governments plans for phase two of reform. Lord Wakeham's royal commission are due to make their recommendations before the end of the year and leaks to the press have led to pessimism about how far the reforms will go. Many believe that the new upper house will be stuffed with appointed placemen. Others fear that phase two will never happen, that the little house of honours that has been created by phase one will be allowed to carry on indefinitely by a prime minister afraid of a genuinely democratic upper house. Tony Blair has been portrayed as an instinctive centraliser bent on creating an "elective dictatorship". It is somewhat ironic that this term, coined by Tory grandee Lord Hailsham to describe the Labour government in 1976, should be used to criticise, of all things, the programme of Lords reform.

Hailsham, a cabinet minister under Ted Heath, was outraged because, once in opposition, he realised that any government with a working majority had no legitimate opposition. Yes, the House of Lords had the right, under our constitution, to challenge the Commons over legislation, but this was always going to be a one sided contest because the lower house has a mandate from the people. The fundamental flaw in the old House of Lords was that its membership was informal. Of the 1200-odd peers eligible to sit, barely a third of them turned up on a regular basis, and many of those that did had other full time jobs to attend to. Whilst a hard core of their number worked diligently to try to make the constitution function properly, history had left them isolated, a band of illegitimate souls in a democratic society. Hailsham was right: for much of this century, our supposedly bi-cameral system of government has, in effect, been uni-cameral.

Change has been long overdue, but the result of the republican referendum in Australia should give Lord Wakeham pause for thought. The Australians saw that a president elected in the same manner as the Governor General, — by politicians — was, in reality, little more than change for change's sake. Abolishing the monarchy in order to make politicians more powerful just didn't seem right. Our Australian cousins took a bold decision for which they should be applauded: if change is to be made, it must be change for the better.

Half way through the process of reforming the House of Lords, I find it difficult to believe that the government has embarked on a such a radical programme of change for change's sake. However, notions of elective dictatorship will not be dispelled by a house of appointees. Even with a fraction of its membership elected, a chamber that has been mostly selected by an appointments committee will amount to nothing more than a supreme quango.

All political legitimacy flows from the general election result. There are however, several fundamental flaws in the argument for a directly elected upper house. Firstly, two houses with the same mandate would lead swiftly to parliamentary gridlock, with both upper and lower chamber claiming to better represent the people (the risk would be heightened if, as in America, elections for the upper house were staggered). Secondly, it would mean more elections at a time when voter turn out has declined alarmingly. Finally, and perhaps most damning of all, it would necessitate the Commons, notoriously jealous of its powers, voting in favour of creating an identically powerful rival. It is because of such difficulties that Lord Wakeham appears to be favouring a mostly appointed upper house.

However, I would argue that it is possible to tap into the general election result in order to give the reformed upper house a different democratic mandate. Whilst keeping the first-past-the-post system for the Commons, I would tally all of the votes cast throughout the country on election night and redistribute them proportionately using the party list system. An upper house composed in this manner in May 1997 would have given the Labour Party only 43% of the seats. The pre-eminence of the Commons — vital if our bi-cameral system is to function properly — would be preserved, as only members of the Commons would have been directly elected by their constituents.

And if some of their noble lordships would consent to serve in a reformed upper house, there would be no bar to them being nominated on the party lists. They have proved their devotion to democracy in their acceptance of Labour's manifesto pledge to remove their voting rights. If we owe them anything, it is that, having swept away 800 years of patronage, we take pains to ensure that what we replace it with is something better: a reformed upper house that represents the democratically expressed will of the British people.

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