Mention House of Lords reform and most people, other than seasoned political anoraks and constitutional experts will either yawn or look blankly at you. Also, one might think that at a time of national economic difficulty if not crisis, the political class’s energy ought to be directed elsewhere. If the public feel that this is a classic example of politicians talking to themselves rather than to the nation, then they would be right.
Worse than that, the proposed reforms are wholly indefensible as a matter of principle. There are in my view only two coherent approaches to reform of the House of Lords. One is outright abolition, leaving the Commons supreme. That would hasten the passage of legislation but, given that a small percentage lead at the polls for one political party can create an enormous Commons majority this leaves the way open for elective dictatorship. The other coherent approach is for a wholly elected second chamber. That often draws complaints about threats to the supremacy of the Commons. Personally I think that would be a good thing. The USA manages perfectly well with just such a system and we could do a lot worse than copy their example.
What is now on offer is an absolute dog’s breakfast. There are to be 240 elected members and 60 appointed members, plus 12 bishops. The present draft bill does not even define who these bishops should be. I do not believe that bishops need a seat in the House of Lords to have a platform for their views. They have one in their cathedrals. It is called a pulpit. As soon as you allow an element of appointment you also allow the risk of cronyism to appear. The current Lords is full of political appointees who are either there because they could not get into the Commons, or else lost their seats, or were persuaded to give up their seats to make way for a ministerial aide who was in need of promotion. It is not an acceptable way to run a democracy. As for the elected element, we will be using multi-member constituencies similar to the present regional constituencies which return MEPs. These regions were dreamt up by bureaucrats. I live in the South East. This begins in Milton Keynes, curls its way westwards and southwards around London taking in Hampshire, and then turns east and sweeps up all the counties east of Hampshire until you hit the sea at Ramsgate. According to the bureaucrats, London is not in the South-East, nor are Hertfordshire and Essex, but Hampshire, which is the eastern edge of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, does for some reason fall within the South-East. Only someone who has spent their entire life in Whitehall and has no understanding whatsoever of English regional identities could have dreamt this up.
Ultimately, this bill is the result of Coalition horse-trading. The Lib Dems want it, because they will probably hold a permanent balance of power in the new Lords (some have suggested a name change to Senate), and they will apparently not agree the Conservative proposals to reduce the total number of MPs to 600 and the accompanying boundary changes, without this Bill being passed as well. Nevertheless as a matter of principle it should be resisted. Our country really deserves better than this.