Creating a legitimate upper house

Published: 04/11/1999   by: Article published in The London Evening Standard, 4 November, 1999

It was, perhaps, unfortunate the week that I was called to give evidence to Lord Wakeham's Commission for Reform of the House of Lords should coincide with a very public falling out between myself and one of Britain's premier rock bands over the issue of backstage toilet facilities. The Manic Street Preachers had brought their own private portaloo to the Glastonbury Festival and I had suggested from the stage that, by creating two classes of ablutions, they had somewhat undermined their much vaunted street cred.

The Manics took umbrage at my comments and the ensuing row — memorably dubbed the Battle of Portaloo — rumbled on for weeks. Suffice to say, the New Musical Express were more interested in what was really just a storm in a thundermug than in my views on constitutional reform.

Six weeks later, I bumped into Roy Hattersley on a train travelling to Sheffield. I was on my way to host a radio show whilst he was off to see his beloved Wednesday play Wimbledon at Hillsborough. I hadn't seen him since the days of Red Wedge and, when I asked what he'd been up to, he told me that he had been sent to the House of Lords. Talk turned to the prospects for reform and Roy kindly listened whilst I went through the arguments and ideas that I had put to the Wakeham commission.

By the end of our conversation the miles had sped by unnoticed and a column subsequently appeared in the Guardian in which Roy claimed that my plan would "ceate a second chamber which would do exactly what second chambers are supposed to do - maintain a semi-independent scrutiny of government legislation. As we arrived in Sheffield, I realised that was why there is no hope of the prime minister accepting it".

Last weekend, the Sunday Telegraph seemed to bear out this pessimistic view. Based on what it claimed was a leaked draft of the final report, it predicted that Wakeham would recommend that the reformed upper house should consist of mostly political appointees with perhaps 20% of its membership elected to give a veneer of democratic legitimacy.

However, such a housewould contradict the Labour Party's stated view in its own evidence to the Royal Commission: "First of all, composition, we believe, should be based on legitimacy, that all members should have equal standing. "Given that the whole point of this reform is to replace the Lords with something better, it follows that members of the reformed chamber must be seen to be more legitimate than the present incumbents. That would implythat a wholly appointed house, with no democratically elected members, is ruled out. And, if all members of the reformed upper house should have equal standing, it then follows that the whole house should be democratically elected.

This, however, brings us to the major hurdle for proponents of democratic reform of the House of Lords. Due to the nature of our bi-cameral system, one house must haveprimacy over the other in order for parliament to function. If both houses were directly elected, political gridlock would ensue, as both chambers could claim to have a direct mandate from the people. In reality, no Houseof Commons would ever vote in favour of creating a rival to its own power.

On top of that, it is clear that the British public are showing signs of ballot box fatigue, making it difficult to argue for a further series of elections for an upperhouse. I mean, how would you react if someone turned up on your doorstep one day and said "Vote for me. I'm going to scrutinise and delay on your behalf"? The turn-out would be abysmal. In contrast, the one political contest that can guarantee a high level of democratic participation is the General Election and, precisely because of that fact, all political legitimacy flows from its result.

And this is the event at the centre of my proposal. In my evidence to the Royal Commission, I argued that it was possible to use the result of the General Election to produce an upper house that was legitimate but not over powerful. My proposal would retain the first-past-the post system for the Commons whilst the upper house would be elected proportionately from the General election result: If Tony Blair got 43% of the votes, he would (however enormous his majority was in the Commons) get 43% of the seats in the upper house. Members would be drawn from lists compiled by the parties. No government this century would have won a majority in this upper house.

Under this system,the pre-eminence of the Commons would be preserved as only MPs would have a personal link from their constituents (and, incidentally, if we wanted to achieve a good gender balance in the new chamber, it could be made mandatoryfor all party lists to alternate between male and female candidates. A further dimension could be added by constructing the lists on a regional basis).

The Labour Party has committed itself to retaining the independent element in the upper house. Some have argued that this can only be achieved by appointment, but even that method cannot guarantee independence of action. All of the current Lords, both hereditary and life peers, were once political placemen. But what spirit of independence there is at present has evolved, partly because members have the luxury of being able to vote without fear of bringing down the government. To further encourage that spirit, no member of the second chamber should be allowed to become a government or shadow minister.

It is true that, under the list system, senior politicians retain the ability to nominate membersof the upper house. That would be unacceptable if the alternative were afully democratic model in which party members alone could choose their candidates.However, what we are being offered - what we are in danger of having imposed on us - is little more than a Supreme Quango.

I propose a system where by the single criterion for composition of a reformed upper house is that it be a democratic expression of the will of the British people - a system that is straightforward to explain, simple to implement and transparent in its workings. Despite the leaks and the pessimism, I find it hard to believe that the prime minister, having championed this great programme of reform, would settle for less. I am, however, certain that the British people will not.

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