Government is playing a dangerous game by resisting democratic reform of the Lords

This week the House of Lords is set to do one of the things it loves most: talking about itself. How wonderful it is; how learned are its members, but how beastly it is that anyone new is ever placed here. We will hear many wise heads opine that the Prime Minister is guilty of a gross abuse of process in appointing new peers this year, and that he is making the place “unsustainable”.  We will hear over and over that the “reputation of the House” is under threat. Some Peers seem to imagine that the public would view as entirely peachy an unelected chamber of Parliament predicated on patronage, just as long as only those who have already been appointed are the only ones ever allowed in.

LDV readers know all too well of the time and trouble spent by Lib Dems in government, attempting to secure comprehensive reform three years ago. The ranged vested interests of the other two parties conspired to block it, stopping more than a decade of progress toward that goal in its tracks. All of this year’s new Lib Peers committed themselves to supporting democratic reform if ever the opportunity is presented but, if we are honest, the prospects are now bleak.

So we are left with a dilemma. What now? Do we say “democratic reform or nothing”? That has usually been my position. I have always been sceptical that trimming at the edges of an absurdity achieves much beyond making it look just slightly less ridiculous, thus slowing the path to real reform. But some possibility of proper reform has been in prospect during the last 18 years, since Labour governments kept on talking a good talk, and the Coalition actually produced a Bill. We all hoped that being in a hung Parliament again this year would ease the way to making that final step of getting an elected Lords. Instead Cameron says he won’t even try to make a further attempt at securing a Bill.

We are now faced with five years of a government whose only contribution to the second chamber of Parliament will be to swell its size still further. No wonder many more of the public now view abolishing the Lords altogether as preferable to carrying on as we are.  As I put it in the chamber last week, the Government is playing a dangerous game by resisting all democratic reform in this way. They risk intense public pressure to abandon the Lords altogether. Absurd and indefensible though the composition of the Lords is, to abolish it would weaken Parliament as a whole and immeasurably strengthen the Executive, leaving “unelected dictatorships” to do their worst. Perhaps George Osborne hopes that is precisely what will happen.

So in the debate this week, I fully expect our Leader Jim Wallace to do full justice to our commitment to democratic reform. It is unwavering. But we will also have to engage with the various suggestions floating around for an interim solution. For example, the whole business would be slightly less rotten if Number 10 were removed from the process and the independents Appointments Commission given a bigger role. It would be slightly less rotten, too, if those appointed in future came in for limited terms. And no one can now seriously defend the preposterous system of by-elections which takes place whenever a hereditary peer dies, where often the electorate is smaller than the number of candidates standing. It is ridiculous and it has to stop.

And as we approach 2020, you can bet Lib Dems will once again be seeking to influence any government, any way we can, to end the system of party appointments altogether.

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