The debate within the British political class - and broader society - about the nature and role of the Second Chamber of government has rumbled on for the past century. From Mr. Asquith’s Parliament Act of 1911 through Nick Clegg’s draft bill on Lords Reform, which will likely be published in the first quarter of 2011, the subject has proved contentious.
At the heart of the Deputy Prime Minister’s initial proposals was the idea that the House of Lords be 100% elected. While Conservative opposition has seen this reduced to 80%, the fact that Liberal Democrats are pushing for members of the Lords to be elected under the single transferrable vote (STV) system - rather than that of the alternative vote (AV), which will form the subject of this May’s referendum – raises interesting constitutional issues of representation and balance.
For example, as ResPublica’s Director Phillip Blond highlighted in his recent talk on the subject for the Radio 4 series ‘Blond on Britain’, there exists the potential that any wholly elected system based on proportional representation, far from delivering a more democratic Lords, would in fact increase the dominance of political parties at the expense of all other groups. The very fact of proportional representation, he argues, would mean the Lords would cease to function as a house of ‘sober second thought’ and could become, in effect, a body in direct opposition to the Commons - and one which could, by virtue of an STV electoral process - conceivably claim an even greater legitimacy than the Commons itself.
As both Phillip Blond and other commentators, such as The Telegraph’s Peter Oborne have noted, the proposed reforms highlight a question of critical importance for a country founded on a mixed constitution: what exactly is the Houser of Lords for? Up to this point, the Lords has functioned as an entity whose role it is to supplement the work of the Commons; the reforms currently envisaged would alter this. This in turn, throws up the question of whether the national interest would be best served by the de facto importation into the UK of the US system, in which the executive of each party can conceivably end up controlling an opposing elected House. The recent history of Congressional-Senate deadlock is not encouraging in this regard.
However, having both parts of the legislature in perpetual conflict is not the only potential negative consequence of ill-thought through reform. We should also recall that the genesis of the long-running debate over reform of the Lords was Asquith’s desire to neutralise its dominance by a single powerful bloc - the landowning classes - which robustly opposed his agenda. Ensuring that the Second Chamber can never again be similarly captured by a powerful interest group must also be a key pillar of reform.
In this regard, there is a case to be made that, assuming the Commons represents the will of the people, the most appropriate role for the Lords is that of representing society at large, specifically, the ‘Big Society’ – an outcome that cannot be accomplished through elections dominated by political parties. Phillip Blond’s suggestion – advanced in his 'Blond on Britain' talk - that a hybrid House of Lords, constituted in equal parts by appointment, election and nomination, is one promising solution.
One thing is clear: the debate over nature and role of the House of Lords is not some esoteric argument but is, rather, a subject with profound implications for our democracy. ResPublica will continue to provide thought leadership on this and other issues. And, as we welcome your contributions too, please visit our site regularly to keep abreast of our policy work and have your say on our popular Disraeli Room blog.