Questions remain over Labour’s plans to axe Lords

How should reformers greet the government’s proposals, leaked to the Telegraph last week, to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected “Senate”?

Guy Aitchison is a campaigner with democracy group Power2010

How should reformers greet the government’s proposals, leaked to the Telegraph last weekend, to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected “Senate”? The full details of the plans are not yet known, but justice secretary Jack Straw is expected to propose a senate of 300 elected members who must be resident in the UK for tax purposes and can be ejected via a US-style “recall” ballot.

They will serve terms of 15 years with a third of the senate elected at one time, by a proportional voting system, on the same day as elections to the Commons. The Conservatives have condemned the planned announcement as a pre-election manoeuvre designed to present Labour as the party of “reform” and cosy up to the Liberal Democrats in anticipation of a hung Parliament, whilst Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne accused the government of a “deathbed conversion”.

As with Labour’s last-ditch plan for an AV referendum, it is hard not to agree about the cynical nature of the timing, especially given Labour’s 13 years in office when they had all the opportunities they needed to reform the Lords.

However, the proposals do represent an improvement on previous attempts at reform which would have allowed hundreds of appointed peers to remain. And the fact 15-year terms are being considered suggests Labour may, at last, be thinking seriously about fixed terms for the Commons too. But there are still many unanswered questions.

Three in particular stand out:

Would automatic religious representation be maintained? There are worrying rumours that it would, thus preserving Britain’s unique status as a semi-theocratic Western democracy. It is bizarre that this is even being considered as there is no legitimate reason for it and no real demand. As an ICM poll for Power2010 showed, 74 per cent of voters think unelected bishops should have no place in the legislature – with only 21 per cent believing they should – while 70 per cent of Christians want the bishops gone against 26 per cent in favour of keeping them.

As Polly Toynbee put it on Monday, if the religious want to make laws let them “stand for office alongside everyone else, with no reserved benches that honour their office and their dogma instead of their individual qualities.”

What form of electoral system is being proposed? Will it be a closed list system, as in European elections, that will allow the parties to choose the candidates and thus extend their stranglehold over Parliament even further? Or will it be an open list system, where voters influence which candidates are elected, making an independent and pluralist second chamber more likely?

When will the appointees and hereditaries be gone by? In the past the justice secretary has said it may take several decades to fully replace the Lords with an elected chamber as existing members will be allowed to stay put until they die. This is intolerable: we’ve been waiting a century for reform and another half century is just too excruciating to bear thinking about. I suspect ministers are secretly keen on this as they hope for a cushy retirement in the Lords themselves. So we should say loud and clear: “No more Lords!”

In addition, there are important questions to be addressed about what kind of powers a reformed chamber would have, in particular whether the Parliament Act would need to be repealed if we have a democratically legitimate second chamber. So we await the proposals with interest – and not a little dismay that having taken so long, these fundamental reforms are being exploited to create more “dividing lines” ahead of an election.

A proposal for a fully elected second chamber is on the five-point Power Pledge which all candidates are being asked to sign up to ahead of the election. Sign the pledge here

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22 Responses to “Questions remain over Labour’s plans to axe Lords”

  1. House Of Twits

    RT @leftfootfwd Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  2. Nicholas Darlington

    RT @houseoftwits: RT @leftfootfwd Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  3. gladders

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  4. Tim Worstall

    “in particular whether the Parliament Act would need to be repealed if we have a democratically legitimate second chamber.”

    Don’t be silly. Of course the Commons won’t be willing to give up promacy. The Senate will not be allowed to interfere with finance bills, I can tell you that right from the start.

  5. Tim Worstall

    primacy of course

  6. Power2010

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  7. topsy_top20k

    Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  8. GuyAitchison

    By me > RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  9. Les Crompton

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  10. Alexander Maw

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  11. Scott A J Reynolds

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  12. Maureen

    RT @leftfootfwd Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj [excellent analysis]

  13. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour’s plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  14. Sam Hopper

    Questions remain over Labour’s plans to axe Lords http://bit.ly/cjtHnK

  15. Deb Swinney

    RT @Power_2010: RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords: http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  16. Mr. Sensible

    I have to say that I am totally opposed to an elected second chamber.
    Because, I think in order to fulfill its function as a “revising chamber”, the Lords needs to be apolitical, and I fear this would not happen with an elected house.

    So, in my view, we should get rid of the remaining hereditary, have the power to expel from the house but then leave things as they are.

  17. Guy Aitchison

    Mr. Sensible, how about other more radical non-elected solutions like random selection of citizens by lot, the Athenian Option?

  18. Stuart Weir

    Guy Aitchison raises an important quetion about the system chosen to elect senators, but he could go further. First, surely STV should be a serious option as well as Open List PR; secondly, the system for allocating seats ought not to be D’Hondt, which favours big parties (and Straw chose this system for the Euro-elections, but the more pluralist Sainte-Lague; and thirdly, there are significant differences in Open List PR which could make the elections more or less voter-friendly – about which reform-minded people should educate themselves.

  19. Senate for Britain: the campaign » Questions remain over Labour’s plans to axe Lords

    […] blog was first published on Left Foot Forward and Open Democracy. Guy Aitchison is a campaigner from […]

  20. Jamie

    Guy, I don’t think the Athenian Option is a good idea either. At least most of the Lords have experience in either defence, business, law or science. They do know what they are talking about. The recent embryology bill was pretty much done entirely in the Lords.

    With an increasing number of our MPs coming from a law background, or even being ‘career politicians’, I cannot help but feel that the House of Lords is ever more important. There is no doubt that it needs reform, but making it wholly elected would be a recipe for disaster

  21. George Gabriel

    RT @leftfootfwd: Questions remain over Labour's plans to axe Lords http://cli.gs/vGQYj

  22. Reformers demand no more appointments to Lords | Left Foot Forward

    […] with the Guardian on Monday justice secretary Jack Straw went some of the way to answering the three questions I posed in a post for Left Foot Forward on Labour’s plans for an elected senate of 300 members to […]

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