Democracy shouldn’t be for sale – Cash for Peerages should unite the left

Politicians must not be allowed to again kick reform of the Lords into the long grass


New findings from three political scientists which are revealed in today’s Observer suggests that the main parties at Westminster are selling peerages – that it is no longer something many suspect occurs, but is something of a statistical fact. Under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 this activity is also illegal.

Given the drip of stories around sleaze and hollow commitments made to clean up politics over recent decades, it should be little wonder that there is a low level of public trust in government and politicians. Its corrosive long term effect on society and the impact of big money in politics however should concern us all.

We can’t build a country of active citizens if people don’t engage in politics; we will struggle to forge commitment to moral values that emphasise the common good if political leaders live otherwise; the quality of our politicians will suffer if those remaining in the talent pool are just after a career. And on the left we will struggle to counter the current stagnation in wages and proceeds of growth accruing to asset owners if big money continues to buy influence – the devolution of power and wealth surely go hand in hand.

If the political class is to build and sustain greater trust it has to change how Peers are appointed (the House of Lords Appointment Commission has clearly failed), but it must also be open about the consequences of the current system. As long as selecting Peers rests in the hands of a select few then the appointment process will remain open to abuse and patronage. As long as parties go touting for big donations they will remain open to the influence of big money.

The latest scandal provides an obvious opportunity to complete the process of centuries of democratic reform by finally making the second chamber elected. Parties should also receive greater state funding, because our democracy is worth it. Some voters are sceptical of greater state funding of Parties, but this is in part because the standing of political parties is so low that they are considered an inappropriate source of public funds.

But we cannot allow this misguided and ultimately contradictory perspective to dictate public policy; otherwise it will be only a matter of time until future scandal fuels more public disengagement.

Forming a constitutional convention, like that which preceded the creation of the Scottish Parliament, could be very helpful – but nothing must be allowed to yet again kick reform of the Lords into the long grass, and such reform provides a useful cause to bring together all left-wing parties.

Political reform is sorely needed, it will lead to greater reforms (political and economic), and can help give the left a common purpose. It should be high on the left’s political agenda in the next Parliament, which looks very likely to be hung.

Paul Pettinger is a Council member of the Electoral Reform Society and member of the Liberal Democrats. He voted against his Party entering a coalition with the Conservatives and writes in a personal capacity

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