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 
Photo: Getty Images

Caroline Julian is Deputy Director, Head of Policy and Strategy at the thinktank ResPublica.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.