An elected House of Lords will damage British democracy
Some years ago I was in favour of having an elected House of Lords. It seems only sensible that in a modern democracy the right to rule is given to those who have been chosen by a popular vote, and these representatives should not be impeded by a historical hangover from when unelected barons ruled over us. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that electing our House of Lords would dramatically change its purpose and powers, and would in fact damage our democracy. This is not to say that the Lords does not need reforming, simply that electing our peers is not the way forward, even if it seems appealing. Currently, the vast majority of the 792 lords are appointed to their roles, leaving only 92 heredity peers. The birth-right of these men (and they are mostly men) to rule us by virtue of who their parents happened to be is of course an affront to our democracy, and their removal is preferred, if not entirely appropriate. However electing our second chamber is not a solution to problems that the House of Lords has, and would create more new difficulties than it would solve.
Electing both chambers of the Houses of Parliament would create legitimacy issues because both houses would be able to claim to represent the people; neither house would have a right to superiority over the other as both have a democratic mandate. This would lead to the House of Lords becoming an alternative government entitled to as much power as the House of Commons. British governments tend to find it hard to agree internally – Blair vs. Brown, Cameron vs. Clegg -, do we really trust that they would be able to work with an equally, if not more, valid alternative government operating from the same building? Having two bodies who can claim a mandate would lead to a constitutional crisis and the jamming of the gears of government, reducing the power of not only the Lords, but also the Commons.
The Coalition’s Programme for Government suggests that a form of Proportional Representation (PR) will be used for Lords elections, meaning the alternative government could be able to claim greater legitimacy than the one based in the Commons, as they would be more representative than MPs elected using the arguably broken first-past-the-post system. The Coalition risks creating an alternative government that has more right to rule than they ought to. The result of this constitutional crisis could be that the Lords becomes the dominant chamber. Another problem arises from the Political Reform section of the Programme for Government. It says that the Lords would become ‘a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber’. If the Lords were to become partly elected then not only would it undermine the Commons, but also itself, as some Peers would have a mandate, and some wouldn’t meaning that those who are elected could surely demand more say than their unelected, unequal counterparts. The resulting lack of synergy would divide the house and make it much less useful than a wholly appointed chamber.
Putting these serious constitutional ramifications aside, electing a second chamber would dramatically change its makeup. Currently, our appointed peers are chosen on merit and for their expertise in a certain field. If we moved away from having appointed Lords then instead of having experts in science, business, the arts, and law we would only have experts at getting elected to sit in the chamber. MPs are elected for their popularity, not their expertise, and so having a second chamber full of knowledgeable and distinguished peers prevents ill-considered legislation being rushed through parliament. An elected House of Lords would become populist, rather than expert and a chamber of winners of the X-factor, not the Nobel Prize. If we forced our Lords to concern themselves with staying popular in order to be re-elected, then the value of the second chamber would be diminished as peers would feel unable to voice concerns which may be too technical or controversial to appeal to the masses.
Whilst the House of Lords does require incremental reforms, we must resist a knee-jerk impulse to move to an elected second chamber. We must get over our preconception that in order to improve something, we simply need to elect it. Using elections would damage the Lords, the government and our democracy as a whole. The idea that these elections would improve our democracy simply does not stack up. Considering already low turnout in UK elections, we must focus on democratic and electoral quality, rather than electoral quantity. It is time is lay our delusions about the ability of elections to act as a cure-for-all to rest.
Article by James Bowater. Edited by Marc Geddes.
HM Government, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, (London, 2010)