Where to now for the House of Lords? — Part One

The elected government are always called to account but, not so their Lordships. Even national bankruptcy would not tarnish these well feathered nests so they generally acknowledge their subordinate role and remain as a force of guidance, as opposed to executive action, for which they are clearly not suited or authorised to do. There are many experienced and hugely competent members whose contributions are valuable and necessary. As a revising chamber it has worked very well for many years with reasoned debates and much less partisanship than the commons. It has probably been one of the best second chambers in the world and the envy of many.

This pattern works because of convention and the clear understanding that they are subordinate to the commons, unlike the American system whereby the elected executive is constantly frustrated by opposition dominated chambers bent on opposition for its own sake. These conventions actually make a bizarrely overpopulated and unequal chamber work quite well, hence the rather immaterial matter of reform to date. It certainly hasn’t been top of the government’s list but has surely moved up a peg or two now.

Reform of the HOL or whatever a second chamber should be called may turn out to be something that nobody had thought of.

Many British constitutional structures retain this trait of only working because everyone wants them to and by remaining within the parameters of accepted behaviour. The HOL is one of these but a more formal and prescriptive approach may now be necessary.

One problem we have is the duality of the role. On the one hand there is the title, hugely desired and the ultimate in elevating one’s status and consequently one’s ego. This is the bit everyone really wants. Then there is the legislative role which is necessary, but not nearly as interesting to most peers. The role is to scrutinise legislation with a view to improving it and to do that without being obstructed by party political ideology.

These two aspects are quite different so why, one might ask, do they remain inextricably linked together? Why not allow the sitting prime minister to continue to indulge his passion for patronage and create as many peers as he wants, or not with either of these approaches having no impact upon the second chamber at all. The second chamber could be a different body completely thereby detaching the narcissistic role from the legislative one and thereby removing one major obstacle to establishing a functional and appropriate second chamber.

Imagine that we decide to call it a ‘Senate’. A properly constructed legislative reviewing body and populated by individuals selected for their skills and abilities via an independent process and not necessarily to select ‘Senators’ to reflect a party allegiance. The question is; should they be elected and if so how?

If such a body were to be considered then perhaps an electoral process should be included at some stage in the process but elections aren’t always the best way. Why would we want to replicate a process that appoints the unqualified to positions that requires definite skills and experience? It’s no secret that any fool can get elected as an MP but the second chamber, perhaps, should be a little more discerning.

My own constituency is a good example. With a 32,000 Conservative majority (but UKIP in second place) anyone in blue would win and if my dad had been a high court judge and my uncle a Conservative peer (and ex MP) perhaps, (in days gone by) that would have been me so I’m sure you get my drift about the fallibility of the electoral process as the boy (or girl) with the blue rosette gets the prize even if they are a complete idiot, or as is more likely of average ability, less than average competence and simply voting fodder for their party. Also do we really need another electoral campaign running alongside a general election or council election? The duplicity, misinformation and propaganda deluge would just be replicated for an elected second chamber and we would likely fill the place with the same calibre of people as the commons when we could do much better. It is not a tall certain that anyone would even bother to vote in such an uninspiring election as few even understand what it is the second chamber is supposed to do. Turnout could reach a new low thereby rather negating the whole argument for an elective solution.

The primacy of the commons would need to be enshrined in legislation as an elected second chamber would certainly continue to challenge, with greater enthusiasm than ever, their subordinate role were they to be elected. They have already shown they are prepared to do this even without that added electoral authority.

Elections also suggest periodic change whereas a revising chamber subservient to the commons would be best served by consistency. With an ostensibly neutral (politically) body (as the HOL often can be), of appropriately skilled individuals with a permanent, until retirement, term the business of government may still be properly discharged but without the inconsistencies and potentially disruptive nature of the present arrangements. In transition many existing and valued peers could continue in post.

But, how should that work? Well, perhaps the totality of that question is for another day but, I will suggest, though, that the Senate be regionally representative and reflect the naturally diverse political landscape of the UK in a broad sense. The existing chamber could be reduced in number by application and selection with an independent body created to select a suitable candidate group, by a means yet to be determined, for each region with the final choice being made by the regional electorate. Each vacancy that occurred would follow a similar process for replacement. Senators would be properly paid for discharging properly defined duties.

Job done?

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