Essay:The House of Lords

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On the political spectrum, I find myself to be a liberal and a social democrat. I'm an atheist, I advocate Proportional Representation; I wish to see a written constitution and the abolition of the monarchy. And so my natural position, and the position which I have held for so long, is that the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords, should be abolished or reformed to such an extent that it is an entirely elected Senate; not an undemocratic body of questionable political appointments and hereditary peers (who are often too conservative to claim to represent the views of the country). And yet, as the idea of a "Wholly elected upper house, elected by proportional representation," has become government policy and looks like it could be a reality, I've become suspicious and cold towards this political reform which every bone in my body tells me I should support. I never, ever thought I would defend a system in which unelected persons have a role in government, and yet... here I go.


The United Kingdom doesn't have a written constitution, and Parliament has evolved through gradual changes over hundreds of years. The country has evolved from an absolute monarchy to a democracy, with no absolute step from one to the other. Certainly, one must argue that we were a democracy once we'd been through our brutal and bloody civil war, but with constituencies representing grossly different numbers of people, it was not true democracy. Significant reforms over the years have occurred, almost always with huge public support or political consensus. Constitutional change cannot and should not be a bargaining tool for a senior coalition partner to throw as a bone to their junior partner. But, alas, this is not the problem.

In 1911, the battle between the elected lower house and the unelected upper house (a battle which is still relevant now, 99 years later) turned massively towards the Commons (the elected lower house). The Parliament Act 1911 allowed the House of Commons, in certain circumstances, to pass bills against the will of the House of Lords. In the late 1940s, fearing that the Lords would hold up or halt the post-war government's nationalisation programme, the Labour government used the Parliament Act 1911's powers to override the House of Lords to amend the Parliament Act 1911, giving them more power to circumvent the House of Lords in passing bills. These two blows to the House of Lords turned the upper house into more of an advisory body than a house of the legislature. A government which had just been elected (when arguably their mandate is strongest) could basically pass anything, because they had four or five years to pass bills, in which time they could easily use the Parliament Acts (often the threat of the Acts was enough). As their term passed, the Lords' ability to hold up, but not stop, legislation required the government to amend and compromise when the House of Lords objected to their plans.

This leaves us with a very different political system to the one we had at the turn of the 20th century. A government, upon being elected, can begin their entire legislative agenda. If the House of Lords dislike it, they can suggest amendments. The government can compromise, refining their legislation, or they can use threaten to use the Parliament Acts. The bill will be significantly slowed down. Surely, this is a positive system. Upon being elected with a majority, the government knows it CAN pass its agenda. However, the bills which receive objection will either have to be negotiated on, compromised on and beaten into a better bill - or it'll be held up. Meanwhile, as a government approaches their later years, when they arguably have less of a mandate, they may find that they have less chance of passing the bill without the support of the Lords, and compromise becomes more important. Again, surely a system in which a government has sweeping legislative power when freshly elected and yet has less such power three or four years after their election is a positive thing.

Now, we must look at what the House of Lords have tried to stop happening since the passage of the Parliament Act. Their objections have never, it seems, been to economic or financial matters (Note that 'money bills' are far easier to pass without the support of the Lords under the Parliament Acts). Their objections are either from a socially conservative point of view, a "bad legislation/overly authoritarian legislation" point of view or being against political reform. As a liberal, I struggle to justify their social conservatism being forced upon us. And yet, as a believer in proportional representation, I must believe in coalitions, public mandates and political consensus - not in governments acting on a whim because they have a majority. As such, I can accept the bitter taste of this social conservatism in the knowledge that parties who believe in these sweeping changes will probably begin to make the changes upon being elected; they won't wait a few years. The House of Lords tried to stop, for example, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 which lowered the age of consent for homosexual. I do not, for one second, defend this body's anti-gay rights action or social conservatism; but I think it doesn't matter at all; as governments can cope without their support.

I believe the Lords, as a conservative (small 'c') body, with both hereditary peers and appointed politicians, performs a very important role in slowing down and speaking out against authoritarian measures and bad political reform. Their constant complaining about and attempts to amend, the anti-terrorism legislation which we saw in Blair's later days and Brown's premiership were essential services.

And so, we end up in the situation that we face in 2010. We have a strange and emasculated upper-house with very limited power, and a strange mix of appointed seats and inherited seats. In simple terms, they cannot stop a government from passing its legislative agenda. They can, however, seriously hold up bills which are problematic. And from here, we reach the fallacy which blind adherence to liberal policies will bring us to. The Parliament of the United Kingdom is effectively a unicameral (one-house) system, with a second body able to slow down and potentially amend legislation - and only sometimes meaningfully.

The liberal position must, surely, be - "This house should be elected, not appointed, not inherited! That is democracy!" But, here's the problem: As long as living memory goes back, the House of Commons has been the centre of British politics. There is very little will to have any more power given to the upper house. We don't want to rebalance ourselves to a true bicameral system. And yet, our liberal ideology demands that the House of Lords be replaced with an elected Senate. But once we have an elected Senate, the next step of this ideological creep will be, "But surely, if both houses are elected, they must both play a central role in British politics."

Committee functions, legislative functions, oversight functions - these will all be transferred to the Upper House. We must question the logic of this. There is no serious body of people in the United Kingdom who want to take power from the Lower House and give it to an Upper House; but this is the consequence of an elected Upper House. If we dislike a political body, to replace it with a different political body seems reasonable. But to give this new body more power, simply because we disliked the old one, is simply hubris.

I advocate proportional representation, the abolition of the monarchy, a written constitution and ultimately, a step away from the current format of the House of Lords. But, like many others, I am happy with the balance between the Upper and Lower houses. I would like to see the assignment of seats in the Upper House modified significantly with less of a focus on Prime Ministerial appointment and inheritance. I would even be happy with a system which sees political parties appoint new members to the House of Lords based on the share of the vote which they receive. But, alas, I cannot support this massive overreaction; I cannot support a new elected body in Parliament when there is no need, no requirement for one.

All things staying the same, I would vote against a proportionally-represented wholly-elected Senate in a referendum. In a political system without a written constitution, constitutional reform must be a slow process with deep consultation and consensus. Change for the sake of change is not progress; when the goal is democracy and accountability but the outcome is an unintended rebalancing of the political system, I will not support it. I will not and cannot accept the addition of a new body without a clear answer to the purpose of that body; especially when I think the current body fulfils that role so well.