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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

New Statesman
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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