A democratic crisis is brewing – reforming the Lords has never been more important

For peers to resist the government's Brexit plans, they must have democratic legitimacy

Image: UK Parliament

There have always been good reasons for reforming the House of Lords, but there has never been the urgency that Brexit has brought about.

Our democracy is going through a crisis that could result in our losing a whole set of social and environmental protections in a right-wing cull of decisions by executive dictate. An effective second chamber is essential, but it has to have more legitimacy if it going to stand up against ministers determined to bypass Parliament with secondary legislation and hasty trade deals.

Today’s second reading of my House of Lords reform bill is an opportunity for peers, rather than MPs, to take the lead in making the change happen. My bill would use proportional representation to elect a new house, but keep many existing peers as non-voting experts. This is the first time such a mix of proposals has come from within the Lords.

There are three dangers down the road with Brexit. One is that the Government simply leaves a lot of European law out of the Great Repeal Bill.

Another is that much of the detail is put in secondary legislation, which gets less scrutiny and is extremely difficult to amend and vote down. In both cases they’d hope nobody notices, or that any opposition would be swamped by the focus around other issues like single market access.

A third is that the Government gives itself so-called Henry the Eighth powers to unilaterally repeal or amend these laws after the act passes, opening the door to a bonfire of environmental and social protections.

I campaigned to leave the EU because I always believed that devolved decision making and a more direct democracy are essential steps in taking back control from the multinationals and distant bureaucrats. These are principles I shared with many on the left, such as Tony Benn and Bob Crow, but I have been at odds with the official Green Party belief that striving for a reformed EU is the best way of securing essentials like freedom of movement and workers’ rights.

The way this government is lining up to sneak through its ideological agenda under the cover of the referendum result is reinforcing the view of many remainers that they need to fight harder to retain the securities and safeguards of the Brussels rulebook.

The nature of the beast of democracy is that you are often on the losing side and things are done that you don’t agree with. We can all live with that. But what the government is threatening to do is to take executive powers that allow no debate and little discussion, while they destroy pollution controls, environmental safeguards and workplace safeguards.

The Great Repeal Bill will just be the start, as secondary legislation and Ministerial misjudgements are hurried through. Next will come all the detailed giveaways in the trade negotiations with the likes of Trump. We know from our experience with TTIP that these external treaties have significant internal impacts. Modern trade deals need as much parliamentary scrutiny as any legislation.

I don’t under-estimate the practical problems with parliament dealing with the sheer volume of secondary legislation and trade negotiations, which is why we need a functioning second chamber that has real legitimacy.

If the government does grab the Henry the Eighth powers, an unelected and unreformed second chamber will lack the legitimacy to face them down. We urgently need a democratic revolution that will bring in PR and a system where every vote counts.

The second reading of my Bill to reform the house of Lords from within, will give peers the chance to save our democratic system from the Government’s attempt at a power grab.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer and a former London Assembly Member

See: ‘Rushed’, ‘Nothing new’: Progressives respond to Brexit white paper

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9 Responses to “A democratic crisis is brewing – reforming the Lords has never been more important”

  1. David Lindsay

    Both Houses of Parliament will reject withdrawal from the Single Market, if it ever gets that far. But whereas the composition of the House of Commons can be changed, that of the House of Lords cannot. At least, not without what would be the ludicrous creation of hundreds of Peers in one go. Giving the Lords a veto is Theresa May’s way of ensuring that the whole scheme is killed off. This has nothing to do with such reforms as there were under Tony Blair. Those reforms postdated the European Communities Act, the Single European Act, and the Maastricht Treaty.

    This looks like the real possibility of a new second chamber. But there is no point in waiting for May to come up with anything specific. We all remember the Blairites on this, too. Instead, the Left needs a specific proposal that would maximise the representation of the Labour Left, of smaller Left formations that had the good sense not to use the C-word or what have you for electoral purposes, and of non-party Left activists. There are alliances to be made here.

    “Brexit means Brexit,” says the Prime Minister. The democratic will must be respected, says the Leader of the Opposition. They need to confront the mounting anger about the ballooning size of the unelected House of Parliament while the elected House is being cut, and that despite the growing population. The powers of the House of Lords should be transferred to a new Senate, the members of which would be remunerated in the same way as MPs were. Ministers would not be drawn from the Senate, but they would appear before it. Even the Prime Minister might. The Senate’s term of office would be six years.

    Each of the nine English regions would elect 30 Senators, namely six Conservatives, six Labour, six Liberal Democrats, six from other registered political parties that did not contest Commons elections, and six non-party candidates to sit as Crossbenchers. Many of us do not like the word “Independent”, since, while not members of any party, we are proudly part of many overlapping networks of political interdependence.

    In the first three cases, any member of the relevant party who was a parliamentary elector within the region would be eligible to stand. As electors, each of us would vote for one candidate, with the top six elected at the end. Casual vacancies would be filled by co-opting the next candidate down who was willing and able to serve. The fourth category would use party lists, again requiring candidates to be from within the region. The fifth would replicate the first three, but for non-partisans.

    Scotland and Wales would each elect 30 Senators. Five each from the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales, other registered political parties that did not contest Commons elections, and Crossbenchers. Northern Ireland would elect 30 Senators. Three each from the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, other parties that did not contest Commons elections, and Crossbenchers.

    This would give 360 Senators, representing a very broad range of political opinion. UKIP, or whatever came after it, would happily exchange the off-chance of one Commons seat for the effective guarantee of 11 Senators and the serious possibility of 12. The same would be true of the three Green Parties in different parts of the United Kingdom. And practically every elector would be able to point to at least one Senator for whom he or she had voted.

  2. X

    Liberals, ha ha, they died when they voted in student loans.

    To be truely representitve you need to include ukip. Rather than arbitrary numbers let’s have proportional representation 2 years out of phase with the commons.

    Brexit is a vote against mass immigration, unless this is corrected expect a slowly smoulding civil war like the Swedish minister stated was the case in his country.

    Listen to the people not the snowflake protesters.

  3. Craig Mackay

    In an ideal world, reforming the House of Lords would be an excellent idea. Sadly there simply isn’t the time. There will be enough resistance to this or indeed any mildly radical idea to ensure that any proposal will wander through the process for a geological period of time and then evaporate.

    There is a very real and substantial risk to so much that has been achieved in recent years in the UK from what will potentially be the biggest right-wing power grab for a generation.

    If you really want to get thoroughly depressed by the whole matter, see: http://outsidethebubble.net/2016/12/08/brexit-opportunity-for-the-biggest-right-wing-power-grab-for-a-generation/

  4. David Lindsay

    X, UKIP is now only three weeks from electoral oblivion. It has already run out of money, and its Leader is waiting to be nicked.

    If the result of the EU referendum was a vindication of the economic vision of someone like Daniel Hannan, then Leave won in all the wrong places. As, for that matter, did Remain, of which more anon. The same is at least broadly true of immigration. The one specific promise made by the Leave campaign to those who, unlike me, would not necessarily have voted Leave anyway, was that there would be an extra £350 million per week for the NHS.

    But there was no mention of that in yesterday’s White Paper, which was bizarrely published on the day after Second Reading of the Bill to which it relates. In view of this omission, and having indicated its acceptance of the referendum result by voting for Second Reading, Labour ought to vote against Third Reading. That would constitute a challenge to Conservatives such as Neil Carmichael, who broke cover yesterday. Until 2010, his seat of Stroud was held by the admirable Labourite David Drew, who was still only 4,866 votes short when he sought to recapture it in 2015. I for one would very much like to see Drew back in Parliament. But Carmichael clearly has other worries, and he has good cause to have them.

    Every constituency in a Remain area, but for which the MP voted for Second Reading last night, is now a Liberal Democrat target seat. Overwhelmingly, those MPs are Conservatives in the South of England. Using the NHS excuse to abstain, at least, at Third Reading might very well be their last hope of remaining in Parliament after 2020. It might also be enough to kill this Bill. Thereby requiring the Government to produce one that did indeed honour the result of the referendum: withdrawal from the EU, leading to an extra £350 million per week for the NHS. Or face defeat at the polls overall by the party that would do precisely that.

  5. nhsgp

    It doesn’t need reform.

    It needs to be abolished.

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