Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dangers of reforming the House of Lords

What could go wrong by making the legislature more democratic in the UK?

A house divided
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, assured a parliamentary committee on February 27th that the government was committed to exposing the unelected chamber—a Western anomaly—to democracy. There would be a reduced body of 300 Lords, down from over 800 now. At least 240 would be elected for one-off, 15-year terms under proportional representation, starting in 2015. The remainder would resemble the current chamber: independent-minded experts in various fields, with a smattering of Anglican bishops. The bill could make it into the Queen’s Speech (the government’s next programme of legislation) in the spring.

All three major parties pledged before the last general election to democratise the House of Lords. David Cameron, the prime minister, and his fellow Tory ministers are going along with Mr Clegg’s plan. But the forces massing against the idea are fearsome. Many MPs, especially Tories, worry that a second chamber with an electoral mandate would challenge the primacy of the Commons and substitute Britain’s tradition of strong government for American-style legislative gridlock. Labour officially supports a wholly-elected Lords, but a good number of its MPs disagree…

Then there is public opinion, which is largely indifferent to constitutional tinkering. Lords reform might strike voters as an unforgivably esoteric pursuit at a time of economic misery…

Some Conservatives point out that the coalition agreement between the two parties only commits the government to establishing “a committee to bring forward proposals” for an elected Lords, not to enacting them. Some Lib Dems hint their party will not support the ongoing review of Commons constituency boundaries, which should give the Conservatives a greater share of seats, if they do not get their way…

Despite the obstacles, Mr Clegg still has a reasonable chance of prevailing. Younger Tory MPs are less opposed to Lords reform than their more grizzled colleagues. The public may not give much priority to the issue, but polls suggest their views are in line with Mr Clegg’s. And the Lords’ usual defence against reform—that they are merely a revising, scrutinising chamber—jars with reality. For much of this year, the unelected body persistently blocked a welfare-reform bill that is probably the government’s most popular policy…

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