Conservative Future: A democratic deficit or a democratic asset? The case against House of Lords reform

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For more than a century, politicians have wrestled and fought over the contentious issue of House of Lords reform. Through various changes and continual democratic evolution, new members of the upper house are now largely appointed based on merit, rather than chance of birth through the passing down of heredity titles. Conservative Future understands the merits and advantages of having a fully appointed House of Lords. Underlying the opposition to replacing the upper House with a fully elected set of politicians is a respect for the meritocratic nature of the appointment based system, free from political control and free from the fear of being elected out of office.  This, therefore, means they are able to conduct their role in an independent and objective manner, and act as an important check on the powers of Government and effectively scrutinise legislation passed through to the House of Lords from the House of Commons.

It is imperative to repudiate the myths of having an appointed second chamber. Proponents of reform argue that an appointed House of Lords is ‘undemocratic’, and must be held accountable to the public. The Electoral Reform Society states that ‘Members of the current House of Lords have real power, over policies and legislation, but they are not elected by the people that have to live by those laws’ [1]. What proponents of reform fail to point out is that the House of Lords in its current form successfully acts as a well needed check on the often childish and uncivilised nature of the House of Commons. The House of Lords contains many experts in various fields, and as such can offer valuable and learned advice on issues passing through parliament; detached from partisan lines and free to observe legislative formation from a wholly different perspective than Members of Parliament. Moreover, members of an appointed upper chamber are free to make statements on issues and vote independently without the creeping fear of incurring the wrath of the forever-overseeing party whip. Removing these experts from the House of Lords and replacing them with elected politicians will only create a mirror image of the House of Commons, risking legislative deadlocks and a power struggle between the two chambers. Therefore, the appointed House of Lords is currently a beneficial source of accountability to the actions and motives of the elected House of Commons. It is vital for our democracy to retain this internal relationship between the two chambers.

The public rightly strive for their representatives in Parliament to carry out their duties according to the high standards that is expected of them. The electorate is sick of the political infighting and the patronising demeanour in which MP’s pretend to understand the needs of their constituents. However, this is unfortunately to be expected of those seeking public approval – as any other form of behaviour will only serve to concrete the idea that MP’s are self-serving and detached from the realities of everyday life. An unfortunate scenario has arisen in which Members of Parliament are forced into a corner: MP’s are on one hand criticised for not doing enough to help their constituents, and on the other they are criticised for falsely claiming they understand the needs of the electorate. As a result it is imperative that we maintain the independent nature of the House of Lords, to avoid the aforementioned dilemma that MP’s face. If the House of Lords became a wholly elected upper chamber it would cease to be an effective and respected institution. This concern is raised by Betty Boothroyd, the former speaker of the House of Commons, who expressed her concern of an elected upper house becoming a ‘second rate version of the House of Commons’ [2].

Her concerns mirror the concerns that Conservative Future hold in regards to reformation of the House of Lords. Proponents of reformation often overlook the fact that the House of Lords has been in a state of continual change over many decades. The Life Peerages act of 1958 allowed merit-based appointments to sit in the upper chamber. The House of Lords Act 1999 substantially reduced the number of hereditary peers to 92 on an interim basis. So rather than being an institution stuck in the past, it is a forever evolving chamber. Such democratic evolution ensures the legitimacy of having an appointed House of Lords. Proponents of reformation falsely portray the House of Lords as an ancient and undemocratic institution, with membership largely made up of elderly upper-class fumbling aristocrats. This is an outdated and misunderstood view of the positive nature of an appointed House of Lords, and the advantages it brings to our democracy. We must ensure the survival of this respected political establishment. Conservative Future strongly opposes any move to replace the current membership of the House of Lords with a fully elected chamber.

Article by Dave Collins, member of Conservative Future, Sheffield. Edited by George Richards.

Further Reading:

[1] http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/reforming-the-house-of-lords/

[2] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101203-0001.htm#10120327000539