Tuesday, 24 April 2012

House raus

It seems frankly surreal to think that in the early years of the 21st century we are still debating the reform of the House of Lords. We should be colonising the Moon or mining asteroids, not deciding precisely which species of political hack should be entitled to wear ermine.

What probably saved the Lords from earlier extinction was that it conceded the bulk of its power, specifically the ability to reject or unilaterally amend legislation, in 1911, before the arrival of universal adult suffrage in 1918 (men) and 1928 (women). Had it held out till after WW1, it's hard to see how it could have survived as a hereditary body in any form. By collapsing like an England cricket team before tea-time, it perversely found itself in a political dead zone that allowed it to live on, zombie-like, for an another 100 years.

The House of Lords should not be reformed. It should be abolished outright because it is a standing affront to democracy. It is not quaint, nor even particularly traditional: life peers were only introduced in 1958. It is a two-fingered salute to the people of Britain; an arrogant and unashamed symbol of the institutional corruption at the heart of politics. The UK's bicameral system developed to reflect and entrench different class interests. The perpetuation of the Lords is therefore an acceptance of the continuing privilege of the old aristocracy and the new oligarchy.

It does not need replacing with a directly-elected second chamber, let alone one with a residuum of appointed political loyalists and bishops. Bicameral systems are only appropriate where the second chamber reflects an alternate pole of power, such as the federal states in the US. Unicameral systems are more than adequate where no such power balance is necessary, and there is no evidence they are any less democratic (cf. Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Portugal etc).

Most bicameral systems reflect strong regional or ethnic divisions. The argument for a second UK chamber on federal lines is weak, as there are already devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These aren't going to be abolished, which would mean either restricting a federal second chamber (weaker than the devolved assemblies) to just the English regions or adding another, competing layer of government. Both ideas are nonsensical. Multiple devolved assemblies for the larger English regions (i.e. the North, Midlands and South West), with powers equivalent to Scotland and Wales, might constitute a progressive alternative to the Lords, but this isn't on offer.

A well-worn argument for a second chamber is the need for a separate body to the Commons to revise, or "improve", legislation. The not-so-subtle implication is that the Commons is either incompetent in its drafting or too cowed by the whips to get it right first time. This is really an argument for better scrutiny of legislation by the Commons, and more authority for standing committees. It isn't an argument for intervention by the "grown-ups". The Lords is no defence against an elected dictatorship, and providing a second chamber with sufficient powers to function in that role will inevitably result in conflict and a constitutional crisis.

The broader argument that you need wise and experienced cross-benchers, independent of party, is just naked elitism. It is also not proven that appointing the "great and good" provides anything other than a very narrow range of life experience, no matter how expert the individual may be in their chosen field. What democracy needs is more representatives of the working class and the regions, not more TV-friendly academics and self-satisfied businessmen.

In a reformed Lords, most appointees and elected members would be time-serving party hacks, professional lobbyists or members of the usual metropolitan elites of finance, the law, media and PR. In other words, pretty much like MPs have become, and pretty much the same as the Lords has been for the last 50 years.

The widespread assumption that we need a second chamber, with no attempt to justify this need, is indicative of the degree to which the continuing presence of the Lords has corrupted political debate in this country. An example of this is the YouGov poll being quoted in support of Nick Clegg's Lords reform plan this week. The poll was commissioned by Unlock Democracy (nee Charter 88), who are explicitly committed to a second chamber. The respondents were not offered the choice of abolition.

This same lobby group has taken to regurgitatingpoll carried out in January, well before the announcement of the joint committee's reform proposals on Monday. This one was commissioned by The Sun following the Lords amendment to exclude child benefit from the £26k benefit cap (the amendment was later overturned by the Commons). The poll was clearly intended to question the Lords legitimacy in blocking a policy favoured by the newspaper. Again, it did not ask if the respondents were in favour of abolition, merely whether they were in favour of the Lords being elected and (pinko) bishops excluded.

The debate over the next few weeks may well centre on the issue of a referendum, however the one thing we can be sure of is that this will be as much an abuse of democracy as the farce over electoral reform and the haggling over Scottish devolution. We will be faced with a binary choice: do you agree with the government's proposal for a new second chamber or not? What we really need is the opportunity to express support for straight abolition. Clear the house, and take all that ermine crap with you.

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