As I write this, I have in front of me a booklet containing the manifestos of Liberal Democrats who were contesting an internal election being run by their party some years ago to establish who should be considered for any Life Peerages the LibDems might be offered in the House of Lords.
This compendium of nonentities with its blurred photographs, infantile slogans and endorsements of the not-so-great & good would be a worthy bedside book of humour were it not for the sobering fact that many of these prospective peers will be featuring on ballot papers up and down the land if plans to elect the House of Lords come to fruition, as is now seemingly advocated by all three main parties.
Leave aside that British voters currently view elections with about as much enthusiasm as a dental appointment and are likely to register their displeasure with yet another tier of party politicians by refusing to vote.
Leave aside that today’s emaciated political parties are scarcely able to find adequate funds and candidates for elections to all the existing tiers of government, never mind resource yet another ballot.
The crucial question is whether there is any point in replicating the House of Commons with an elected House of Lords, populated by the same type of politicians who are forever accountable to the parties that ensured their election.
Are we content to allow the Upper House to become as partisan as the Lower House? Do we really wish to end up with a House populated by party hacks whose only meaningful qualification was their failure to achieve election to the House of Commons? Do we really want to replace the House of Lords with a House of Losers?
While the voting public has other more pressing concerns, it seems that reform of the House of Lords is back on the agenda in the Westminster Village.
Accordingly this proposal is being circulated as a contribution to the renewed debate in the hope that the future of the House of Lords can finally be settled.
If it were possible to conjure up a definitive list of 500 of the most wise, the most honest, the most financially prudent, the most assiduous, the most compassionate and the most visionary Britons who were the most experienced and the most competent in their field, it is unlikely that any of those identified would include a single member of the current House of Commons.
This should not be surprising; excellence is not what the House of Commons is about. The House of Commons is about power and politics, where the ultimate and final decisions are taken; it is where burgeoning public expectation has to be reconciled with scarcity of resources; it is where the art of the possible is practised. The only skill members of the House of Commons require is an ability to communicate successfully with, and speak for, people, an aptitude perhaps first evidenced by their successful selection, election and subsequent re-election.
The aptitude required for membership of the House of Lords is, surely, different. In performing its agreed role as a revising chamber, the Upper House needs to comprise people of skill, experience and independence of thought, impervious to party political pressure and unencumbered by short term electoral considerations.
If we cannot have an Upper House so constituted, then there really is no point in having one at all.
Our present Upper House, with its eclectic mixture of Life Peers, Law Lords, Bishops, Archbishops and remnants of the British nobility, seems to perform its task of scrutiny to the extent that even those who want the existing members replaced with elected representatives acknowledge their achievements in bringing the Government to account and amending faulty legislation in the face of an over-powerful Executive and a supine House of Commons. Certainly, it might be argued that a few of our imaginary Top 500 might already be in the Lords and that, if left to its own devices, the House of Lords Appointments Commission could, over time, be reasonably expected to recommend some more.
The problem is, this Government was elected on a manifesto which undertook to complete the reform of the House of Lords and both Conservatives and LibDems support a largely elected Upper House. Moreover, the ongoing “Cash for Peerages” scandal has undermined the work of the Appointments Commission and sullied the reputation of the Lords for independence in the eyes of voters. Even without these pressures, the Lords as presently constituted will always be vulnerable to the accusation that it lacks the authority of an elected body.
The quest, then, is to perfect a system to ensure that, over time, as many as possible of our imaginary “Top 500” are elected to the House of Lords.
What to do with their existing Lordships? It seems it’s not so much that they are not doing their job properly, it’s more how they acquired the job in the first place. Such little thought that has been given to the fate of the current membership seems to be preoccupied with the removal of the remaining hereditary peers which has become a rather class-tinged cause célèbre, almost on a par with fox hunting. In point of fact, the remaining hereditary peers have an above-average attendance record and in any case it is debatable whether a Prime Minister’s crony or political party benefactor can claim their peerage to have greater validity than those who simply inherited their title.
Even if the 92 Hereditaries end up on the tumbrel simply to assuage the Westminster Village mob, there still remain the 26 Bishops/Archbishops and the 623 Life Peers who will surely not be easily persuaded to wave through legislation to abolish themselves. These turkeys will not be voting for Christmas.
Some reformers attempt to dispose of the problem by claiming that there is nothing to stop deposed peers from standing for election under the new regime. Come off it! The average age of the current membership is 68 and many of their Lordships are in their 80’s. Are we really expecting these old timers to gallivant around the entire nation of Scotland or the region of West Midlands canvassing for votes? Are we going to ask an 85 year old crossbencher with a 100% attendance record to venture out into the political arena in a hopeless endeavour to retain his seat against the might of party machines armed with all their privileges of election broadcasting, state aid and national media coverage?
Of greater importance to the nation is the wisdom of abolishing an adequately functioning institution simply to replace it with an entirely unknown quantity. Even reformers acknowledge that there might be a problem; in its February 2006 report, the Power Commission was obliged to recommend that specialist committees in a reformed House of Lords should have the power to co-opt experts in order to “compensate for the loss of some specialist expertise in the Lords that would result from instituting a largely elected chamber.”
The practical answer is simply to let the existing Lords be. To this end, a look at the age profile of the membership of the current House of Lords is instructive, indicating a current annual death rate of about 20 peers a year and an expectation that this expiry rate will increase over the next two decades.
Legislation would be needed now to dismantle the Appointments Commission and call a halt to all recruitment to the Upper House. The same statute could be used to give all the existing peers – Bishops, Archbishops, Law Lords, Life Peers and even Hereditaries - the same status by awarding them all a 21st Century Life Peerage. This new class of life peerage might embody a fixed retirement age or at least an ability to retire after which some sort of emeritus status could be granted, thereby dignifying the exit process. To deal with those peers whose attendance record is rather less than impressive, a failure to attend a specified number of meetings without requesting leave of absence might automatically trigger retirement.
In this way, the membership of the current House of Lords would reduce gradually from its current level of 741, at the rate of 80-100 every 4 years as their Lordships retired/expired. There will thus be a gradual reduction in the size of the Upper House, generally perceived to be on the large side, allowing for the introduction of a new system for the popular election of a small number of replacement peers every four years. This would enable the existing peers to take a more disinterested view of Lords reform legislation, while being on hand to show the ropes to the new intake.
A policy of gradual replacement is practical and the passage of the legislation required to bring it about is achievable. Moreover there will only be a few dozen decent candidates to find for several elections over decades, rather than several hundred in one hit. It may not be tidy, it may lack immediacy and the revolutionaries won’t like it, but evolution has always been the British preference and it creates the breathing space we need in order to ponder how we elect several dozen replacement peers once every four years.
Problem 2: Political Parties are not fit for purpose
Now is not the time to be calling for more elections.
The attitude of the public to party politics and the decline of political parties briefly referred to at the beginning of this paper has been the subject of recent investigation by the Power Commission. Their report offers compelling reasons why parties are experiencing falling membership and activity and why an increasing number of voters are refusing to participate in elections at any level. The Power Report concludes that political parties are no longer as material a part of the social framework they once were, as is evidenced by the miniscule membership totals for the parties – less than 2% of the population, and of that tiny percentage, no more than 1 in 5 reported as being active.
The Power Commission still believes that political parties have a future but it is just possible that parties as we know them may be on their last legs. Up to the 1990's the main parties had distinct philosophies which drove distinct policy programmes. By the turn of the century, these distinctions had all but disappeared; Thatcherism triumphed, Socialism withered and there is now a convergence of views on many issues, underpinned by identical economic policies. As a result, today's electorate changes government with as much thought and enthusiasm as they would change their underwear (and probably for much the same reason!). Perhaps political parties may have been no more than a passing phase in our political development - museum pieces from the steam age of politics when simplistic packages of philosophy and policy were required for a badly educated adult population which had just been given the vote.
Moreover, the Power Report records the increasing presence in parties of people whose interest is restricted to politics for its own sake and who lack any skills from outside the political arena. The presence of politicians with no professional or business experience, contributing nothing but their beliefs, is bad enough in the House of Commons; their presence in large numbers in an elected House of Lords would be a disaster. Suitability for a peerage should surely turn on rather more than the ability to design a good election leaflet.
In any event, today’s political parties are clearly in trouble. Their abysmal level of membership indicates that they are not representative of mainstream society and are clearly not fit for the purpose of securing the nomination of sufficient numbers of talented people to resource a popular election to the House of Lords.
There is another problem. One of the reasons why the existing Upper House operates as well as it does may be due to the presence of large numbers of independent minds who sit as cross-benchers in the House – 26% of the total. No single party holds sway there and debates are less adversarial and more considered as a result. It is difficult to imagine the election of such a large contingent of independents in a traditional national election, where highly organised party machines would surely grind any independent thought into the blood-soaked dirt of the British political arena.
Those who look to a proportional voting system to deliver a regiment of doughty cross-benchers are likely to be disappointed, if the evidence of Martin Bell’s failed 2004 Euro-candidacy in the Eastern Region is anything to go by. If such a high-profile independent spirit of some repute cannot win one of 6 seats in a proportional election where voters felt they could let their hair down, there is not much hope for independents anywhere else, however worthy they may be and however responsive the electoral system that is chosen.
And so our quest takes us across the Irish Sea to a prosperous and civilized nation where excesses of government are constrained by a written constitution which cannot be altered without popular consent, where there is a half-decent voting system and what is known as a “Vocational Senate” for an Upper House, whose membership is in part nominated by panels of commercial and cultural institutions, rather than by political parties.
The Irish rather spoil it all by restricting the right to vote in their Senatorial elections to Parliamentarians and local councils, which seems a bit incestuous and would probably be judged by a cynical British electorate to be little improvement on the existing Appointments Commission. Nevertheless, the end result is a highly desirable Upper House whose membership is drawn from a completely different cross-section of Irish Society and where political party influence is replaced by the presence of members of Government who have the right to attend and be heard in both Houses to supervise the passage of legislation for which they are responsible.
Could Britain emulate, or even improve on, Irish practice? Could British voters elect a vocational Upper House?
Clearly Eire is not the UK; the size and complexity of both communities are different. The popular election of a vocational House of Lords presents formidable difficulties but just because something is politically difficult does not mean it ought not to be attempted if it’s the right thing to do. The prize of creating an Upper House even better qualified to do its work than the current body is surely worth the effort.
The 2000 Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act may have turned out to be a pen-pushing curse but it has one redeeming feature. Party machines, now identified, regulated and registered in law, could, by law, be switched off. It would be possible to legislate to prohibit political parties from participating in a particular election. This would be a prerequisite for any popular election to a vocational Upper House.
Candidates for election to the Lords would then be nominated not by political parties, but by institutions and professions representing fields of expertise in, say, education, law, health & welfare, commerce, security, and environmental, spiritual/ethical matters and cultural issues, who would be previously registered with the Electoral Commission. It should also be possible for a candidate to be nominated by popular petition.
There are several ways of setting up a vocational Upper House, depending on the term of office to be served and the eventual optimum size of the Lords, as existing peers retire. A 16 year term of office should be sufficient to render their Lordships impervious to short termism while avoiding the accusations that are levelled against people holding offices for life. While their Lordships would not have traditional constituency responsibilities, elections to the Upper House could be conducted using the existing European Parliamentary constituencies and representation, thereby yielding 78 peers per election and an eventual membership of 312 peers.
Alternatively, a more sophisticated system might be considered to ensure that each group of professions was adequately represented, as operates in Eire. This has the advantage of ensuring that professions would not be competing against each other for representation and that the election would be more issue-led but it would involve the use of fewer, larger super-regions and one ballot paper for each group of professions. In Eire there are 5 such groups.
As for the election campaign itself, the absence of political parties creates a unique and welcome opportunity to hold a completely different sort of national election. Money and undue influence could be designed out of the British electoral process by making available to vocational candidates a whole range of means of communicating with voters, paid for by the Exchequer. The bankrolling of campaigns by third parties would be unnecessary and could therefore be made illegal. Voters’ information packs, interactive websites, issue-led media debates, preferential voting and even a bunting-festooned polling day bank holiday would help to create that elusive level playing field.
It would also achieve something far more important.
In the twinkling of an eye, a British national election metamorphoses into a question of individual suitability and issues, rather than of puerile slogans, opinion-forming opinion polls and the colour of somebody’s ridiculous rosette.
And, in the twinkling of an eye, a British national election actually becomes an intelligent process and worthy of voters’ interest and participation.