By Billy Lucas - Editor-in-Chief
The case for a democratically elected House of Lords, if taken seriously, places a stick of dynamite right underneath the constitution, and if implemented, would cause chaos for the systems of government that this country runs on. It is easy to chastise the House of Lords as a cesspit for all that is wrong with our democracy, yet a look underneath the country’s constitutional bonnet shows that reform rather than riddance is what the House of Lords really needs.
For decades, if not centuries, the House of Lords has sat uncomfortably as the second chamber in the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, a pre-democratic system of governance that placed the Lords above the commoners as legislators was never going to find the transition to mass electoral democracy an easy or comfortable one. Incremental reforms over the decades have patched the Lords up as a constitutional monster that many perceive as antiquated in a modern and vibrant democracy. In particular, the power of Prime Ministers to appoint whomever they desire into the Lords has had a rotten whiff for a while now. Whilst PMs such as Brown and May exercised admirable restraint in their appointments, the slew of appointments under Boris Johnson has once more pushed for calls to consign the Lords to the dustbin of history.
Yet to abolish the Lords and either replace it with another elected chamber, or not replace it at all (à la New Zealand), would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. The Lords performs a crucial democratic function in our system as a revising chamber, and sits snugly between the lack of restraint brought by a unicameral system, and the deadlock of an elected bicameral system.
The effectiveness of the Lords as a revising chamber simply cannot be understated. In revising legislation primarily put forward by the Commons, the Lords exercises its greatest talent, applying the experience and knowledge of peers that have been honed through many a distinguished career. The role of a peer is fundamentally different to that of an MP, for they have no constituency or base to represent, and as they need never seek re-election, no other pressures aside from scrutiny of legislation. This allows peers to take the time to ensure legislation is as effective as it can possibly be. MPs, however well-intentioned and knowledgeable, simply cannot match the in-depth and expert knowledge that many peers tirelessly bring, many without staff.
The argument that there is an unelected body that affects legislation is indeed an unnerving one, but truly a nonstarter. The vast majority of amended legislation in the Lords is simply approved by the Commons, and if there is dispute, more often than not the Lords gives way. Since the passage of the Parliament Act 1911 and subsequently 1949, the Lords can if it still wishes veto a bill, but only for a year, after which it is given Royal Assent. It is also worth noting that since the 1949 Act, Royal Assent without Lords approval has only occurred 4 times, hardly a grave threat to democracy in and of itself.
Proposals for change must, however, be considered. Knowing what one is against is one thing, but the fundamental question that vanishingly few politicians seem to ask, let alone answer, is what would an elected second chamber be for?
Electing members to a revising chamber is a futile move. For, with a proper democratic mandate from the people, it would validly breed confidence within the members to oppose the first chamber if it so desires. A democratic mandate that empowers the Commons would empower the new chamber in just the same way. This would open up a system of relentless deadlock between divided chambers, and a cursory glance towards the American system is a shuddering prospect. There is pressure enough on the current system, and to elect a second chamber would achieve nothing more than to put a mirror up to the Commons, without any of the added benefits that the current Lords brings. This says nothing of the position of the Prime Minister and her cabinet in this framework: which chamber would they be drawn from?
Make no mistake the House of Lords has its issues, patronage, bloating, and the elderly at every corner. But you do not correct a twisted ankle by lopping off the leg, you treat it with care and attention. So what should this reform look like?
A good start would be reducing the chamber by a few hundred. An easy way to do this is to introduce a new, tougher set of rules, outlining how seriously peers should take their role and constitutional responsibilities. A minority tarnish the reputation of the institution by failing to fulfil their duties. An analysis of public data in 2019 found that in a 12 month period, almost 1 in 9 peers never spoke, held a government post or participated in a committee at all. Toughening up the current system and requiring peers to regularly attend and contribute or forsake their seat would sift out those who merely crave the title from those who diligently work. Further, an enforced retirement age would rapidly reduce the numbers in a chamber with an average age of 70 as of 2019.
With regards to the patronage of the Prime Minister, rules to elevate a handful, rather than a bucketful every year is another starting point. This is trickier yet if a precedent is set by a dutiful Prime Minister to elevate experts and the occasional politician, it would be harder to avoid doing the right thing. Indeed, by enforcing and making known the seriousness of the role as outlined previously, the lens with which one views the Lords may change to a more serious one.
Ultimately, having a House of Lords is not emblematic of the purest form of democracy, yet with reform there is the potential for a functioning and effective parliamentary system fit for the 21st century. The Commons as a hot headed chamber where tensions fray, orators spar with one another, the very white heat of democracy is in action. And to its side, a revising chamber. One that takes time, reviewing and revising legislation that is borne from the fiery democratic crucible just next door. It is a supplementary yet wholly necessary chamber. It should be reformed to be fit for the 21st century, but those who wish for its abolition should think twice.
Image - Unsplash (Deniz Fuchidzhiev)