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6 January 2017updated 16 Sep 2021 4:24pm

Paddy Ashdown: “The House of Commons is a lapdog, not a watchdog“

The Liberal Democrat grandee attacked Labour's "weak" position on Brexit. 

If Westminster is, as Andrew Neil termed it, “a tiny, toy-town world beyond the reach of most of us,” then the House of Lords is that rare, discontinued train set, whose eBay bidding chain is made up of collectors with money to burn.

Arriving at the peer’s entrance – of course it has more than one entrance – the tall man in the tailcoat on the front desk asks: “If sir wouldn’t mind waiting in the lobby, please.” His sentence structure is as strange as his use of the third person. Several coat pegs have “reserved” written above them and the ceremony of the place is forthright.

Lord Ashdown, though, appears unfazed.

After a brisk march through a few echoing corridors, during which not one person says hello to him, the former Royal Marines captain gestures towards an enormously long table flanked by just two leather chairs. Ashdown was created a Life Peer in 2001 and has been an outspoken constitutional critic of the second chamber ever since; which begs the question, then, why did he accept the title in the first place?

He prefaces a confident answer with a shrug. “I came into this place to get rid of it. How else can you get rid of something unless you’re in the right place to vote to get rid of it, or at the very least for its reform? I think it is an affront to have an undemocratic second chamber. The principle of democracy is that those who make the laws have the power to do so because they have been conferred through the ballot box.”

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While Ashdown might resent what he calls the “creature of the executive”, he isn’t entirely against all of that creature’s comforts. “I suppose if you want to keep it then alright, all this gold-plated stuff isn’t too uncongenial; but far too many of their Lordships get their feet under the table and lose whatever radical principles they had before. They get so seduced by being called Milord every other second that they want to keep the place going.”

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So what should the second chamber look like, according to Ashdown? “My view is that it should be elected as it is elsewhere in the world. It should be geographically based, it should be based on regions, and it should be elected on a term different from the House of Commons. It should be elected by proportionate representation and if it  was then it would have a wider diversity of people.

“Of course, the Commons has primacy but that doesn’t mean that it should have absolute primacy. This place does some of its job well; it’s a good revising chamber but it’s very bad at holding the government to account.”

The investment manager Gina Miller told the New Statesman last year that in campaigning to block the Conservative government’s move to invoke article 50 without reference to the Commons, she was “doing the Labour party’s job.” If reformed, as Ashdown insists is necessary, can the Lords provide an effective opposition when one is absent elsewhere? He explains: “The House of Commons is supposed to be the watchdog of the government, but in truth it’s more like a lapdog. You see it now, Labour failing to oppose the government on things that really matter – the interception bill, Brexit for example, where their position has been so weak. The House of Lords does, then, compensate for the failings of the Commons, but nowhere near as much as it should, and would do if it was elected. If you had a second chamber that successfully did its job in holding the executive to account, I would argue that you wouldn’t have had the poll tax, and you wouldn’t have had the Iraq war.”

Ashdown says that the second chamber should be elected but retain its power of veto; couldn’t that be viewed as a contradiction in terms? What would stop the Lords from preventing something that had been decided democratically in the Commons? What if the Lords wanted to block Brexit? Ashdown takes a deep breath. “I would caution against that. The people have voted and whether you like it or not, that is superior to both Houses. We must allow the government to enact Brexit, but that doesn’t mean that it should be allowed to go through completely unamended.”

In a democracy, the principle of a popular mandate ought to be sacrosanct; but if we restrict the second chamber’s role to scrutinising and amending legislation, are we missing an opportunity for better governance? Why not let the Lords have an originating function? Ashdown suggests that some degree of competition between two elected chambers could be healthy, noting the positives of plurality. “If you look at the model of other second chambers around the world – there are 84 by my count – only four are not elected. These are Belarus, Ukraine, Britain and Canada. Not very good company, is it?

“I think they all have a limited power of check. Now take, for instance, treaties. The government has the ability to introduce treaties, part of their own prerogative, not subject to parliamentary scrutiny at all. The Nato treaty is one, Brexit is another. I think that the House of Lords should have a particular role in the ratification of treaties. The present Salisbury Convention, which isn’t bad, could simply be translated into law very easily. In any case, I accept the primacy of the Commons, but it must not have total primacy.”

Ashdown’s politics are decidedly centrist, informed by the habit of compromise and in favour of coalitions. All things considered, his views on the Lords are perhaps unsurprising. But in a political climate that is so obtrusively partisan, how optimistic can he be about recovering the centre ground? Ashdown is emphatic: “There has never been a successful government that has not been of the progressive centre. Extreme governments, on either side, lead you to disaster. If you will not be receptive to the idea of coalitions then you can’t provide sensible government.”

Britain’s duopoly, Ashdown warns, is a dying concept. He adds with a finger wag: “The truth is that democracy is not divided in two. I mean, what do you know in the internet age when people have multiple choices? They want to have a bit of this and a bit of that. The world is not divided into Conservatives and Labour. There are people with a whole range of views and it is one of the remarkable things about our time. If our lives are pluralist, then how can you make our politics binary?”

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman’s Political Studies Guide for 2017