The events of this week were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world.
The events of this week were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world
In a parliamentary democracy, the idea of a second chamber to revise primary legislation and to take a longer view than the main chamber sounds good in theory. And indeed, in the UK we are served by some distinguished legislators who sit in the House of Lords.
The problem is that no matter how hard they work and how effective their interventions might be, none of it can mask the lunacy of the way the House of Lords is constituted.
We’ve seen it again this week on two fronts. Firstly, the prime minister appointed an additional four peers. So as not to upset the gender balance, he was careful to choose three men and a single woman – thus ensuring the 75:25 split in favour of men in the Lords was preserved. One of his appointments appears to have been made in response to the politics of the day – in this case, immigration issues.
So a lawmaker is ennobled to help with the ‘optics’ of current politics. It’s all high-principled stuff.
Next we saw one of the more quirky aspects of an institution with more than its fair share of quirks: an election for a hereditary peer. There are still 90 places in the Lords reserved for people who have as their qualification for a peerage the mere fact of their birth.
So a micro constituency supplies the only people who are actually elected to the second chamber. To be a candidate one must descend from the aristocracy. It would be impossible to make this stuff up.
Despite the heroic efforts of the political class to thwart reform, changes to the House of Lords are inevitable for two reasons.
Firstly, size. In its report The Super-Sized Second Chamber, the Electoral Reform Society pointed out that the House of Lords was second in size only to the People’s Republic of China, who on last checking had a slightly larger population than the UK With so many political appointments of life peers having been made, the number of people eligible to sit, vote and claim the £300 tax-free allowance per day is 849 (minus a small number on leave of absence).
Not only are there not enough seats or office space for this huge number of lawmakers, but as former Conservative constitution minister Mark Harper has noted: “If we have one more change of government it is going to have over 1000 members.”
The truth is it will nearly nudge that number anyway when the Dissolution appointments are made at the end of this Parliament. David Cameron’s first three years as PM saw him appoint four times the number of peers than Gordon Brown did in his three years in Downing Street. And pro-rata Mr Cameron has appointed significantly more than Tony Blair.
The second reason why reform cannot be avoided comes from the impact the Scottish independence referendum has had – and will continue to have – on politics. The Westminster club in its current form is no longer seen as holding any credibility for the new politics needed to re-engage citizens. We need a citizen-led Constitutional Convention to bring democracy back to life right across the UK.
All the parties (and we are now in an age of five- if not six-party politics) have signalled their support for such a move, with the exception so far of the Conservatives. And it is difficult to see how the House of Lords can be left out of that conversation.
Scotland showed us that where the issues are relevant and real and where every vote counts, citizens have a deep desire to be part of their democratic future. The events of this week relating to the House of Lords were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world.
Darren Hughes is deputy chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. He was a New Zealand Labour MP and minister in Helen Clark’s government
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