A Modern Extension — what to do with the House of Lords

Photo: David Sheales
Photo: David Sheales

So, here’s the thing.
  The House of Lords is about the only undemocratic legislative chamber in the developed world (answers on a postcard if you can think of any others…)  It’s in desperate need of reform.  Not the reform, however, intended by the government after its defeat in the Lords over cuts to tax credits — their reform would weaken the Upper House but not make it any more democratic.  Indeed, this is a running theme with the UK government — when encountering a less-than-democratic institution, the reaction is always to try to extricate itself from it or mortally weaken it, rather than making it more democratic — take the EU as another example.

The sad thing about the House of Lords is that having it in its current, undemocratic, unelected form is a thousand times more democratic than not having it at all.  The tax credits cuts fiasco is a great example.  The parts of the UK government are fused —members of the cabinet (the body in charge of proposing legislation, which includes the Prime Minister and the Chancellor) sit in the House of Commons. This means they vote on their own legislation, something which doesn’t happen in many other democratic countries like the USA.  This means that if the government has a majority in the House of Commons, it can be pretty sure its legislation will get passed — just like the tax credits cuts.  The House of Lords is therefore the only check on the government’s power — checks are vital for democracy, as otherwise it means the government effectively becomes a dictator between election times, as there is nothing to stop it from doing what it wants.  So the House of Lords is in an odd position — it is a completely undemocratic institution and an international embarrassment, but weakening it further would make our country less democratic.

So the answer must surely be to make the House of Lords more democratic, so that it acts as a check on the government/House of Commons, and is directly accountable to the people of the United Kingdom? Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple.

Take the fact that the House of Lords is extremely undemocratic.  While this is often given as a reason to weaken the House of Lords, it is also seen as a positive attribute — a reason not to make it more democratic.  Sound perverse? That’s because it is.  The reasoning is that because it is undemocratic, the House of Lords can be filled with experts with experience in particular areas, rather than “career politicians” like in the House of Commons.  Unfortunately, this claim is positively untrue — as the Electoral Reform Society wrote in 2015, 34% of Lords are ex-politicians — the next most well-represented professions are law (7%) and banking and finance (6%) while the worst represented people are those who worked in the transport, policing or manual labour sectors, each with less than 1%.  That doesn’t sound like a well-rounded group of experts to me.  Nonetheless the idea that the House of Lords is filled with experts is a popular myth which refuses to go away, contriving the paradox that the House is good enough to keep in its current form, but undemocratic enough to give it hardly any control over government decisions whatsoever.


And when we dig a little deeper it doesn’t get any better for the dear ol’ House of Lords.  Another argument for keeping the House is that it is impartial — it isn’t bogged down in the petty squabbles and partisanship of the House of Commons.  Unfortunately, again that isn’t strictly true — 74% of Lords sit as a member of a particular political party, with 25% former MPs.  The House of Lords is pretty much as partisan as the Commons — it’s just they’re appointed by government officials, rather than elected by the British people.

So, as in the spirit of Ideas For Today, let’s see how we can go about reforming it.  Well, a proposal formulated in 2012, spearheaded by then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, would see a new House of Lords composed of 360 elected representatives phased in over 15 years, elected from the same regional constituencies as the European Parliament. That’s the democratic part.  And yet the democratically-elected House of Lords still manages to be undemocratic, with some members still appointed to their roles. This new House would therefore still have some of the problems as it does currently, namely that too many members can be nominated by the government of the day to make up the numbers.  We need a new approach.

It’s not often that we say this on Ideas for Today, but we think the best approach to the House of Lords is starting again.  More specifically, how about we retain the House of Lords in its current state, and add a third chamber (a real, elected upper chamber) which can act as a truly effective counterweight to the dominance of the government/House of Commons. This third chamber can bear a similar resemblance to Clegg’s plan, but without any government appointments or interference. The current House of Lords can remain as a room full of impotent “experts”/ex-politicians, while the real legislative business gets done elsewhere.

The financial costs of a third chamber might be steep, but the democratic gains of an effective check on government power cannot be overstated.  A third chamber would also circumvent any labyrinthine arguments about the pros and cons of the current House of Lords — it would be retained in its undemocratic, powerless state, while the third chamber would stop the government from acting like dictators between elections. Our old democracy could do with a modern extension. 

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

One thought on “A Modern Extension — what to do with the House of Lords

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