Joe Armitage is Chairman of Medway Conservative Future and Deputy Chairman (Political), Rochester East Conservatives. He’s also on a gap year interning for a Conservative MP. Follow him on Twitter.
All three of the UK’s major political parties acknowledge a need for Lords reform but specific reforms are rather lackluster and the current proposals have now, of course, been sent packing. Jesse Norman’s alternative of mass membership organisations electing their own peers isn’t realistic and will be seen as 21st century feudalism. There is, however, a better, more conservative alternative yet to be explored. In 1919, the German Bundesrat comprising of 69 indirectly elected representatives of Germany’s 16 states, replaced appointed and hereditary peers of the Prussian House of Lords. Similarly, prior to 1911 the Senate of the United States comprised of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof – many US conservatives want to see that process revived.
The UK’s not a federation, however, it does have 426 local authorities, around the same number of Lords proposed in reforms. Each local authority, through a secret ballot, could elect a representative to sit in the House of Lords – providing effective local accountability and scrutiny of central government. This idea ought to sit well with Conservatives who want to reduce the power of central government and devolve more power locally – much like with police commissioners. This idea also ought to sit well with Nick Clegg, as he said himself: “We in the Liberal Democrats have always championed devolution….Devolution is written into our DNA.”
The indirect elections could effectively run in tangent with local elections, with each local authority electing their respective peers a few days after their election. The peers would serve 5-year terms in line with their councillorship and could be titled Lord of their local authority, such as Lord of Medway, or Dungannon and South Tyrone. After their 5-year term they could keep their Lord title but relinquish the denotation of location so as not to confuse sitting Lords with former Lords. Many local authorities already elect local ceremonial mayors who represent the community, even NOC councils manage to elect mayors and this would provide effective local representation and move away from party politics which the current plans for Lords reform would undoubtedly move towards.
Local authority Lords would also protect the superiority of the House of Commons, which is pivotal. If Lords, as proposed, were directly elected under a more proportional system, opponents of FPTP would claim Lords have more legitimacy, thus undermining the Commons. If Lords were indirectly elected by local councillors, there would be little concern about conflicting legitimacy but also, an indirectly elected Lords with local roots would be immeasurably better than the current arbitrary appointment system.
Most importantly however, local authority Lords would ensure a local link. What’s vaguely proposed now are regional Lords but they’d lack local knowledge and comprise mainly of career politicians with more interest in themselves than the communities they purport to represent. Independent local authorities wouldn’t be susceptible to politicians planted by political party HQs and would elect an individual most suitable to represent their area – like many already do with mayors. Also, local authority Lords would boost the number of individuals standing for councillorship, something desperately needed with the ever dwindling number of candidates – as who would forgo the opportunity of being a Lord?
Given the fact the Conservatives by far control most local authorities, some may cynically say that this local devolution is a guise for Tory domination of the Lords. However, if we want proper representation, then the number of Lords per party would reflect their performance at local elections, which means different localities can have a representative from the party they prefer. Moreover, with political apathy at an all time low, could an elected Lords on the back of a 20-30% turnout truly be said to be democratic? Apathy would grow further with yet another set of elections, indirect elections by elected councillors would solve this and considering the EU Commission’s chosen in this way, the Europhile Lib Dems ought to be content.