Sunday, 24 June 2012

Lords reform (continued)

One would expect Tories to resist reform of the House of Lords. After all, it was dominated from the start by the landed interest, bolstered later by peerages given to those who had made money in other ways. The introduction of life peerages under Harold Macmillan improved the range of life experiences in the upper house, but made a minimal difference to the overall party complexion. Even the restriction to 92 hereditary peers in 1999 by the first Blair government has not removed the inbuilt Conservative majority completely.

So why didn't Labour follow through on the 1999 measure and, more importantly, why are they resisting reform now? Of course, they dare not say that they are against elections to the Lords. This was in their 2010 general election manifesto after all, albeit subject to a referendum. A non-elected chamber of parliament was anathema to the Labour tradition. Therefore, today's Labour management falls back on the specious excuse that the state of the economy should take priority. As many have pointed out, it is possible for parliament to do several things at the same time and, in any case, there is little scope for fresh debate on the financial situation before next year's budget. Moreover, this parliament may be the best chance for a generation of achieving genuine change. 

The obvious attraction of an appointed House is the opportunity it gives to party managers to bribe with ermine awkward or embarrassing old members to leave their seats in favour of the current favourite son or daughter (literally so, in some cases). The Labour people seem to have taken to the place, and to enjoy the little earner and fringe benefits. Labour has also proved as ready as the Conservatives as rewarding donors with a barony

Another benefit was displayed in the second reading debate and committee stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill: the ability to filibuster. Discipline is less strict in the Lords than in the Commons. The quality of debate has generally been higher than in the lower house, probably because the woolsack has been able to trust peers to use their less limited time wisely. But quality plunged in the winter of 2010-11.  Old Labour hack after old Labour hack stood up to recount their football allegiances, or schooldays, or any matter which would fill time, devoid of relevance to the question before the house and usually devoid of any intellectual content, all in the service of the party which wanted to preserve its over-representation in depopulated Commons constituencies.  Donkeys led by weasels.

This leading article in The Independent gives many reasons why reform is necessary. In the mean time, Lord Steel's Bill would improve the House as it stands.

Update 2012-06-25: Emily Thornberry MP on Radio 4 last night indicated a change in Labour tactics, confirmed in the Indy this morning. They would still like an all-elected House of Lords but will support an 80% elected second chamber. They are not, however, prepared to allow the government a timetable motion which would make passage of the necessary legislation easy. 

No comments: