Sunday, 22 May 2011

Lords reform needs to be more radical than this miserable little compromise.

To make one miserable little compromise in a political career is regrettable but to make two though in the space of a year looks like carelessness. Nevertheless Nick Clegg, who has form in this area, has stepped up to the plate to lead the campaign for reform of the House of Lords.

On Tuesday with David Cameron sitting at his side he stood up in the Commons to announce a package of proposed reforms that would give the second chamber ‘greater democratic legitimacy’ and make it ‘more accountable’ to the voting public. Remarkably he managed to keep a straight face throughout, suggesting he either believed every word he was saying or has an almost Zen like ability to control his facial muscles.

The plans would see the number of peers cut to three hundred eighty percent of whom would be elected using proportional representation to sit for a single fifteen year term, with, if all goes to plan, the first elections taking place in 2015. Mindful of the lower case conservatism of his fellow parliamentarians Mr Clegg promised that the changes would be brought about through ‘evolution not revolution’, but affirmed that ‘in a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom the laws apply.’

Noble sentiments put, as ever with Cleggy, in the turgid prose of a middle manager addressing an audience of bored sales reps. Even though they are far from revolutionary the proposals have attracted strong opposition from across the political spectrum.

Labour, who support a fully elected second chamber criticised the plans to retain a small, but not insignificantly so, number of appointed members. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Kahn suggested that reforming the Lords would fail unless the government avoided the ‘rushed and piece-meal approach that has characterised their constitutional reforms so far.’

Several Tory back benchers also trained their fire on the reform plans with Andrew Turner accusing the Deputy Prime Minister of pursuing a ‘private obsession’ when the country faced far more serious problems; Bernard Jenkins said the plans to reform the Lords were ‘yet another tatty road show brought to us by the same people who thought the British people wanted AV.’

Baroness Boothroyd, a former speaker of the House of Commons struck a more reasoned note, questioning whether the Commons could maintain its traditional primacy if both houses were to be elected and whether an elected second chamber would be as effective in scrutinising legislation put before it.

Speaking for the Electoral Reform Society Kate Ghose said that it would take considerable strength of will to finally push through reforms that politicians have been talking about for more than a century without ever turning talk into meaningful action. It was, she said, possible to ‘break the deadlock, but it will require concerted action from all parties to bring this medieval chamber up to date.’

As one of those people who thinks the British people really do want AV, but were frightened out of voting for it by the hysterical scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign I should be jumping for joy that the Lords are going to be reformed, not least because if the new chamber can be elected using PR without the sky falling in it might reopen the debate about wider electoral reform; but I’m not.

This is largely because I fear that this plan is being set up to fail, and not just because poor unpopular ‘nobody agrees with Nick’ Clegg has been put in charge. The details of the proposals simply fail to add up to anything like meaningful reform.

Why, for example, will the new peers (or Senators maybe) sit for a single fifteen year term. Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics, which must make fifteen years an eternity; seriously, the only thing that keeps lazy or inept MPs keen is the fear of losing their seats. Electing someone for a single term the length of a respectable parliamentary career is hardly going to encourage diligence.

There is also the small matter of just who will be selected to stand for election to the new second chamber. Leave it to the three main political parties and you can expect to see the same parade of place puddings adept at attracting political patronage but ignorant about life outside the bubble on the red benches as you currently find on the green. The Lords as it stands may be too large and decidedly anachronistic, but many of its members have shown themselves to be independent minded and unwilling to be cowed by the Whips Office.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect though is the plan to continue appointing twenty percent of the second chamber. This goes way beyond the well meaning but muddle headed idea of giving faith leaders a free pass into the legislature and smacks unpleasantly of manipulation. The creation of enough compliant servants of the establishment to if not swing awkward votes than at least cause enough of a delay to frustrate any kind of rebellion.

The way Westminster works needs to change and to do so rapidly, compared to the devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff the House of Commons looks increasingly like a cosy, complacent gentleman’s club mired in corruption and arcane rituals. The nation’s parliament has to be representative of the people it governs, the way they look, meaning fewer middle aged white men who went to public school and more women and members of the BME community. It has to represent how the people think and feel too; meaning we need more people in parliament for whom politics is the second act of a full and engaged life.

None of these much needed changes will, I fear, be brought about by the slate of timid reforms on offer here. To be meaningful reform has to be radical and what is being offered at the moment just isn’t.

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