Lord Norton of Louth, a Professor of Government, former Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution, and blogger, dismantles the Government’s case for an elected House of Lords.
The Government’s White Paper on Lords reform is a sorry affair. It
fails completely to advance any principled argument for change. It
bandies about terms such as democracy and legitimacy without defining
them or seeking to justify them. It has no philosophic base, relying
on terms which it naively believes to be self-evident, but which are
actually contested concepts.
Electing the second chamber is not necessarily the ‘democratic’
option. At the heart of a representative democracy is the concept of
accountability. The British political system has the benefit of core
accountability. There is one body – the party in government, chosen
through elections to the House of Commons – that is responsible for
public policy. If electors do not approve of what it does, it cannot
blame others – there is no divided accountability – and, crucially,
they can remove it from office at the next election. Electing other
bodies that can then claim the mandate of the popular vote undermines
that core accountability. In the event of conflict between two elected
bodies, who do the electors hold responsible for the outcomes?
Legitimacy derives from the perception that holders of particular posts are the most appropriate people to hold those posts. Judges are legitimate, even though not elected. Members of the Lords are generally held to be legitimate to carry out the tasks ascribed to the second chamber. Supporters of election emphasise what is called ‘input’ legitimacy (the method of selection) but ignore ‘output’ legitimacy (the tasks actually carried out by a body). By focusing solely on the former, the Government neglect the impact on the ability to do the job. As Labour peer Lord Cunningham asked in the Lords:
"What in the White Paper will convince the public that an elected House on those terms [15-year single term] will be more effective, more efficient, give better value for money, be more representative and speak more effectively for the people of this country?"
What we are offered is not even a White Paper (a statement of government policy) but rather a Green Paper (offering options and inviting comments). The Government can’t decide for itself what to do. It is noticeable for its muddle and omissions. To try to ensure members are independent, they are to serve single-terms of 12-15 years and not be eligible for re-election. However, they are not then accountable, so to ensure that they are the prospect of recall elections is raised. It is not clear how members, looking over their shoulders at the prospect of political opponents generating recall petitions, will remain independent.
The present House is more diverse than the Commons in terms of its composition (gender, ethnic background, disability) but the White Paper is silent on how this diversity will be maintained or extended through election. It focuses instead on political composition and appears to believe that the present attributes of the House will be maintained even if its members are elected – wholly neglecting the fact that election completely changes the political terms of trade, not only between the parties but also between the Houses.
And what type of person will seek election to this reformed second chamber? The White Paper rather gives the game away when it suggests that there should be a gap of five years between serving a term in the second chamber and seeking election to the House of Commons. In other words, people whose first choice is to be an MP. The current experience and expertise of the House of Lords would be lost – and for what?
Electing a second chamber of full-time, salaried politicians will not add any obvious value to the political process. The present House is qualitatively distinctive, complementing the House of Commons by fulfilling tasks that the Commons does not have the time, political will or sometimes the resources to carry out. Electing a second chamber that will be similar to the Commons adds little or nothing of value. And if there is case for it, the White Paper certainly does not make it.
In this country, we are distinctive for maintaining core accountability in our political system while enhancing the legislative process through a second chamber characterised by experience and expertise. It is a combination that we jeopardise at our peril.