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.

Richard Burden
Show Hide image

The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.