The progressive case against Lords reform

We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

The House of Lords needs changing. But does it need this particular reform? Labour pledged this week that it will back Liberal Democrat proposals for an 80 per cent elected chamber. There are five reasons why the left might not think this is such a good idea.

1) Elections are not always and everywhere good. There are certain advantages to having legislators that are insulated from polls, Twitter tidal waves and yes, even voters. Experience demonstrates it breeds conviction politics. Whips are less of a threat, and amendments are more likely to be introduced and won. Significant changes - including blocking the government's attempts to limit trial by jury - have been won by the Lords. The welfare and NHS legislation is just the latest example.

Even if you agree with the principle that Lords should face the electorate, the current proposals would only allow future Lords to serve one term for fifteen years. As Lord Dobbs points out, this means that they will never be subject to genuine electoral accountability. When you can't get re-elected, you may as well do what you were going to do anyway.

2) You shouldn't look at how to design a chamber until you've decided what that chamber is for. At the moment there are whole bunch of unanswered questions. As Jesse Norman astutely points out (£), it makes no sense to consider the issue of electing the House of Lords before we've resolved devolution in Scotland. Who exactly will be governed by the House, and how? Do we want the Lords to be a pool of specialist knowledge providing scrutiny as it does now, or do we want a stronger check on an executive that is often criticised for having too much power, making us more like the US?

If electing our Lords really does give the second chamber more legitimacy, then power will be more dispersed and that may well result in more paralysis. People are already frustrated with governments for not being different or radical enough. With a rival second chamber, this may well get worse. What if the left wanted to come in and set up a universal care service? Or pursue more meaningful devolution? Radical agendas will almost certainly be harder to implement.

3) Ironically, we may see a decrease in diversity. Think of disabled peers like Baroness Jane Campbell. It is much harder for them to fight and win an election than it is to get an appointment. Similarly, we can say goodbye to crossbench MPs and the valuable independence they bring. To get elected to the Lords, you'll have to be a member of a political party - and presumably we'll be presented with candidates who couldn't quite make it to the first chamber.

Democracy is about a lot more than being able to vote. One of the most common criticisms of politicians is that we come from increasingly homogenous backgrounds, turning politics into a career rather than a service. Standing for election often requires wealth. Increasingly you have to be in a position to offer free labour through internships and live in London. Right now the Lords is relatively diverse, at least in terms of experience. If we create an elected second chamber without addressing who stands for election and how, we can expect more of the same.

4) Lords reform is not the public's priority right now. No one talks about the constitution on the doorstep. People are worried about their jobs, their homes and their families. We've already had the AV referendum - spending our time debating technical legislation may look like more navel gazing, especially when the Lords are relatively popular. Research by Meg Russell at UCL shows that the Lords were held in higher esteem than the Commons even before the expenses scandal broke. Shaking it up risks making politics look less relevant, not more.

5) It may hand a huge amount of power to the Liberal Democrats. If the second house became more significant, the LibDems' role as kingmaker would become even more important. And let's not forget that this whole programme is their deal anyway. As Andrew Neil points out, Lords reform is their prize for supporting the Conservative's constitutional boundaries that damage Labour.

Hereditary peers are embarrassing, but what if we could find some way of making appointments with legitimacy. What if we had a chamber that was picked to be more representative - the head of trades in industry, charities, our leaders in art, business, and education. That would bring the wealth of British experience to the table in decision making, whilst preserving a distinctive second chamber that didn't rival the first. The public already believes that legislative scrutiny and listening are more important than votes. We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide