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 a senior researcher and project manager at the think-tank ResPublica.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.