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Reforming the Lords: Could the best step forward be to take a step back?

1st September 2015

The Government’s most recent look at reforming the House of Lords has focused on creating an elected second chamber, but such a course might well cause as many problems as it solves. Recent history is littered with other attempts at solving the problem of the Lords, most significantly by Blair who attempted to create an entirely appointed chamber; this approach was also problematic as it allowed the Executive to seize control over the chamber by appointing Lords more sympathetic to their political leanings.

What if instead we increase the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords? I believe this will be an effective solution for creating a more effective House of Lords, but first, let’s consider the alternatives.

A fully appointed House of Lords

Allegations of corruption in appointments have long dogged the Lords. The strange coincidence that those who give large donations to the parties find themselves suddenly appointed is one of the great scandals of the British political system. This is not to say, by any means, that all appointed peers have done this but it is clear that far too many have. This kind of pathway into the channels of power cannot be tolerated by a fair and democratic system of government. If we decided to move towards a fully or at least mostly appointed upper house, this would in all likelihood coincide with an increase in this sort of corruption, barring a radical overhaul of the appointments system.

A fully elected House of Lords

There are also great weaknesses with shifting to an elected upper chamber. Whilst some argue that allowing unelected individuals to have an impact on the laws that govern us is outrageous, I would suggest that creating a democratic second chamber will give the House of Lords a dangerous amount of legitimacy. Whilst some suggest that this legitimacy would add strength to the upper chamber and give it strength to oppose poor or unfair legislation, I think that this legitimacy might well lead to an overturning of the Parliament Act. Legitimacy bestowed on the Lords, however good in and of itself,  would drastically shift the balance of power in Parliament; suddenly a previously subservient upper house would find itself on equal footing with the lower. To find an obvious example of where this has happened, I would look to the American system which sports two elected chambers and an elected President. Over the last couple of years the American system has almost come to standstill because the parties who control the different parts of their system are juxtaposed and equally legitimate no legislation can pass through the houses without being challenged refused or otherwise blocked. This creates political deadlock, as each house has equal legitimacy no part can ignore the others and everything grinds to a halt.

Why a hereditary system?

Hereditary peers have a great number of advantages, a key one of which is their inability to be swayed by sudden changes in the opinion of the electorate. This creates an effective stopping block for more radical regimes that come into power on the back of a surge in votes. For example, when Blair held a massive majority over the House of Commons he could pass basically any legislation that he wanted to as the peers Blair had appointed to be sympathetic to his political leaning vastly outweighed those who were not, but if the House of Lords was formed totally or at least primarily out of hereditary peers then the House of Lords would be able to continue to act as an effective tool for scrutinizing his legislation despite the support he was receiving from the electorate.

In a system with hereditary peers the Lords will be able to slow down legislation but they will not be able to indefinitely prevent it, in accord with their proper constitutional role. Increasing the number of hereditary peers may not be an immediate solution to the problem but it will open the way up for a more effective set of peers who can scrutinise policy much more efficiently and so fulfil their true function in the modern British political system.

The House of Lords is in an almost perpetual crisis. Whilst I do not suppose for a moment that a return to hereditary system would be politically popular, or even perhaps feasible, it does raise an interesting question. After years of tinkering, attempting to fix a House supposedly in ruin, maybe we were wrong to move away from the status quo. Unpopular but effective. Exactly what our Upper House should be.

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