House of Lords reform: what difference will it make?

Dichotomising appointment and election is not going to get us anywhere, but a quiet revolution might

 

The reform of the House of Lords is again on the table. Having anticipated the Joint Committee’s report for some time, we find that, like buses, two come along at once. Despite the formal submission of the Committee’s report, a rival publication by almost half of its members has also emerged. A stalling technique? No. But perhaps a quiet (and progressive) revolution that may finally break through the present dichotomies, and open the way for genuine debate. 
 
Ironically, the parameters placed on the Joint Committee were themselves undemocratic. Commissioned only to report on the Draft Bill and White Paper, the Joint Committee found itself incredibly restricted as to what it could relay. Because the proposals pivoted around the electoral system, efforts were channelled into reviewing this aspect as a priority rather than opening its ears to other, more fundamental, concerns. The members were trapped, and needed an escape.
 
The central problem was the underlying assumption: that ‘election’ equates to greater legitimacy. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform all seemingly agree with this statement, but at no point have we heard any accompanying qualification. As the Archbishops of Canterbury and York stress in their submissions of evidence to the Joint Committee, “the argument that such a [revising] chamber can only be effective and have proper legitimacy if it is wholly or mainly elected is no more than an assertion”.
 
The Government cannot claim to be progressive if it can only resurrect old debates. It has provoked once again the stale dichotomy that has come to dominate the twenty-first century by fuelling the reaction of those who are violently against the elected principle, and channelling only those who support the need for a rushed reform. In an attempt to become more democratic, the Coalition has instead created a divided house.
 
As ResPublica’s recent essay collection demonstrates, a mainly or wholly elected House is certainly not the only way. If the problem is a democratic deficit between the people and the Second Chamber, will introducing a mainly elected element to the House be its ultimate antidote? As Mary Ann Sieghart pointed out in the Independent earlier this week, citizens are growing ever more suspicious of those who currently ‘represent’ them in Parliament. Who’s to say that the same will not transpire in a mainly elected Upper House? In the light of the Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement, published yesterday, which has recorded a drop in almost all areas of political participation and engagement, perhaps now is precisely the right time to re-think popular understandings of ‘representation’ and ‘democracy’.
 
Lord Adebowale in fact argues in our collection that it is precisely because of his position as an appointed peer that those in his locality, and whose needs his social enterprise serves, has inspired them to re-connect with what they perceived to be an old-fashioned Parliamentary process. The House has also gained one further voice for the voluntary and civil society sector – a representative function that elected peers would struggle to achieve.
 
Similarly, we should not let advocates of a wholly appointed House cloud our judgement either. As argued separately by Lord Low and Phillip Blond, elected peers can play a crucial representative role, either as representatives of sectors and expertise, or regions across the UK.
 
Even the Joint Committee’s report acknowledges that the possibility for a national indirectly elected House should be considered. This would at least give those who are genuinely embedded in their communities and sectors an opportunity to offer their wisdom and knowledge, and their national connections, for public benefit. Lord Wei argues in our essay collection that the British Chinese struggle to find a representative in the House of Commons simply because they are so dispersed across the UK. As minorities in most regions, they are crowded out at the first electoral hurdle. Politicians forget how diverse Britain is.
 
If we want a House of Lords that is comprised of trustworthy individuals, we need to stop thinking about ‘representation’ and start thinking about ‘participation’. And this means that we need to move away from the assumption that ‘democracy’ can only ever be achieved through direct elections.
 
The achievement of the Alternative Report is in acknowledging that proposals for the reform of the Second Chamber must first and foremost proceed from an understanding of its power and function. It suggests that an alternative is needed, and further scrutiny is required; but above all, that a genuinely progressive debate needs to take place.
 
It is disappointing that the Joint Committee could respond only to proposals set down in the Government’s Draft Bill. Dichotomising ‘appointment’ and ‘election’ is not going to get us anywhere. But this quiet revolution could open up a new opportunity, and perhaps even the possibility of finally realising reform. 
 
Caroline Julian is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager at the think tank ResPublica, and editor of the essay collection Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords, available here 
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Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle