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Conflict in Britain over House of Lords reform

April 24, 2012

A committee in Britain’s House of Commons has released a report laying out recommendations for how to reform the country’s upper house of parliament, the House of Lords. In addition to laying out some of its own proposals, the committee’s report analyzed reforms that had earlier been proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government. The central reform being proposed is to move away from the current system, in which all members of the chamber are appointees, to one in which a majority of them are elected.

Making the House of Lords an elected body is an idea that has been floated around in Britain for some time. The primary impetus to this reform being considered now is the inclusion of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the governing coalition. Clegg and his party have made the issue of House of Lords reform something of a pet cause. Although all three of Britain’s leading parties – the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats – have at times voiced support for the idea of reforming the upper chamber, the Liberal Democrats in particular might have specific political reasons for seeing it carried through.

The Liberal Democrats have historically been underrepresented in the House of Commons relative to the number of votes they receive. Under Britain’s single-member district electoral system, the candidate that receives a plurality in each district wins. Thus, the Liberal Democrats often put up respectable numbers in many district races, but finish in second or third place to the two bigger parties. The Liberal Democrats helped to engineer a referendum in 2011 in which voters were asked whether they wanted to adopt a more proportional electoral system that would have aided Clegg’s party, but it was overwhelmingly defeated. Many of the House of Lords reform proposals suggest using a proportional system for elections to the upper council, which would likely enable the Liberal Democrats to attain more equitable representation in that body than they currently do in the House of Commons.

The committee’s report recommended reducing the size of the House of Lords from its current membership of over 800, and electing 80% of deputies. The other 20% would remain appointed. Despite past pledges of support from the various parties regarding the concept of House of Lords reform, the idea still faces an uphill battle. For example, the committee that released the report was itself divided, with a sizable minority opposing the idea of elected Lords, while another minority contingent released an alternative report. Some members of Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party argue that they support the idea of reform in principle, but that now is not the time to be considering this change, given the dire economic situation the country faces. Furthermore, in addition to the changes mentioned above, the committee recommended a referendum on the proposed reforms, something that Mr. Clegg opposes and that the British public might not have an appetite for.

And it’s worth pointing out that there remains a sizable contingent that outright opposes reforming the House of Lords. Alex Massie argues that, for all its flaws and despite the anti-democratic nature of having an unelected parliamentary body, the House of Lords works admirably well in its revising and advisory role. Making it elected, particularly through a proportional electoral system, would just give the political parties more say. Furthermore, one of the advantages of having unelected Lords is that they are not hostage to popular opinion and are able to contemplate legislative proposals more objectively. Iain Martin raises an additional criticism: “The Lords is a revising chamber. Its role is to improve legislation and, because many of its members are experienced, raise a ‘red flag’ when the government comes up with a crackpot scheme. Make it elected on the model Clegg favours, with the ‘Senators’ picked from party lists, and the Lords will rival the primary democratic chamber: the Commons.” Thus, House of Lords reform might upset the UK’s current political order. The House of Lords is currently of secondary importance to the House of Commons, tasked with revising legislation introduced by the latter body. If you give the Lords a democratic mandate, isn’t it inevitable that they will push for an equal say in the legislative process?

In short, students of British politics might not need to rush to throw out their old, outdated textbooks just yet. Even if House of Lords reform is not realized immediately, however, it is unlikely that the debate will die down anytime soon.

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