John Strafford is the author of Our Fight for Democracy – A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom.
One of the key features of democracy is that it is a system of government of the people in which the people exercise power. This is done directly or indirectly through their representatives and by a process in which the will of the majority is determined. The House of Lords exercises power and yet the people have no say in its composition, so it is not representative of the people (43% of the members went to just 12 private schools). This cannot be right and for more than a century prominent Conservatives have recognised this and called for it to be changed.
The Conservative Party has a proud tradition of constitutional reform. From the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 to Disraeli’s Second Reform Act of 1867; from the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 which gave votes to women at the age of 21, to the Life Peerage Act of 1958, Conservatives were in the forefront of reform. The one reform which has eluded the Party is that of House of Lords reform.
A century ago Winston Churchill said that the Upper Chamber “must be based upon the roots of the whole body of parliamentary electors”. Its members should be elected by “very large constituencies” to differentiate them from MPs.
In more recent times William Hague said “We would like to see a stronger House of Lords in the future, including a substantial elected element”. In 2005 Michael Howard said “the way we are governed has become less accountable, more complex and, ultimately less democratic….. proper reform of the House of Lords has been repeatedly promised but never delivered”.
In 1998 William Hague launched a Commission chaired by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The Mackay Report included many similarities to the current proposals for House of Lords reform. It said that “the functions and powers of the reformed chamber should be broadly the same as the current House of Lords. There should be no significant diminution of powers”. Among the Report’s proposals were the following:
- It should have limited numbers, no less than 400 and no more than 550.
- Members should serve one non-renewable term of three parliaments.
- Members should be able to resign.
In view of the historical stance of the Conservative Party on House of Lords reform why do some Conservative MPs object to the current Reform Bill?
Some critics say that the House of Lords should be 100% elected and that they should not have 15 year terms and also that they object to the “Open list” method of election. All these points I agree with, but if we can pass the Bill as it stands there will be an opportunity to deal with these points in future legislation.
It is said that we will lose many experts from the Lords, but in fact most of the day to day work is done by the 195 members who were former MPs or MEPs. In the case of many of the “experts” their expertise is decades out of date – 14 members are over the age of 90. Often “experts” disagree with each other. What is required of a politician is not so much expertise but judgement. There is no reason to think that experts are better at making decisions than the average voter. Thomas Jefferson for one, thought it likely that they might be worse. In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” James Surowiecki quotes Thomas Jefferson “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor”. “The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules”.
Then there are those who think it is all a plot by the Liberal Democrats to ensure that they always hold the balance of power in the Upper House. What a counsel of despair for Conservatives to believe that they can never get a majority of the people to vote for them.
Some say that a reformed House of Lords is a recipe for deadlock. Let us take a leaf out of the United States constitution which built in checks and balances to reduce the amount of legislation on the grounds that the less the Government interferes the better off we will all be – a good Conservative principle. Ultimately the House of Commons must always have supremacy.
This House of Lords Bill is a vital step towards a fairer democracy. In good Conservative tradition it is an incremental step along this path. We should all support it.