Britain’s Brexit battle and its associated skirmishes have dominated the news cycle for the last three years, and aside from occasional committee reports and cries of “traitor” from some quarters, this has forced certain issues, such as House of Lords reform, further out of the spotlight. Although the Labour Leadership last year reaffirmed plans to abolish the Lords, these have not been fleshed out to establish a long-term plan, leaving it to us to ask ‘What comes next?’. To do that, we must recognise both the problems arising from and the benefits provided by the current system and ask if it is possible to reconcile these to devise an upper-chamber that works for the many.
Firstly, the House of Lords is simply too large. There are close to 800 peers currently sitting, 128 more members than the House of Commons, ensuring the House of Lords (which only has room for around 400 peers) is the only upper chamber in the world to outnumber its lower counterpart. Although claims of ‘lazy Lords’ are somewhat overblown, there is a consensus throughout Westminster that downsizing is essential to improve the efficiency and functionality of the chamber. The former Lord Speaker, Frances D’Souza, has argued that the Lords need to be cut significantly, and a Lords Committee advised a reduction to 600 members over time. As such, any reform of the Lords would almost certainly reduce their number, just as the joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat reform bill of 2012 intended to reduce the number of peers to around 470 members by 2025.
Secondly, the House of Lords is not democratic in any meaningful sense of the word. Whilst some contend that appointments (which are handled by the elected Prime Minister) possess a degree of public consent, unlike a normal election, the public is not allowed to scrutinise these individuals, only the government is. However, it cannot be said that the House of Lords does not have elections, for it most certainly does. It’s just that these by-elections for hereditary peerages have a smaller electorate than a school council election. In March of this year Lord Ravensdale was elected to the crossbench by other peers, with only 18 votes, where he will sit until retirement or the end of his life, facing no public scrutiny or challenge to his position for the entire duration. It goes without saying that in a democracy, this is unacceptable.
Finally, the Lords as they stand will be a roadblock to any radical transformative program. In his 1932 essay “The choice before the Labour Party”, R.H Tawney wrote that if the “privileged classes” had their position threatened by a radical Labour government, they would “use every piece on the board, political and economic – the House of Lords, the Crown, the Press, disaffection in the army, financial crises, […] in the honest conviction that they are saving civilisation”. Nearly 90 years later, we can see analogous moves playing out. Labour is under constant barrage by the press, in 2017 McDonnell said Southside (Labour HQ) was preparing for a run on the pound in the event of an election victory, and even fevered speculation of a potential military revolt has been circulating since 2015 – ‘A Very British Coup’ style. Whilst Anoosh Chakelian and others have pointed out that to date, the Lord’s interventions haven’t been too damning for the left, it is almost certain many Lords, who have vested interests in the status quo in the form of investments, positions and property, would seek to water-down or undermine a transformative program. We would do well to remember that the Salisbury convention, which holds that members of the Lords will not oppose the second or third reading of a government’s raft of manifesto legislation, is only that – a convention.
We must then consider how these pitfalls can be avoided when formulating an alternative. One proposition is a move that’s historically been favoured by politicians such as Tony Benn – that being the total abolition of the upper house in favour of a unicameral system. Unlike sortition and appointment, there is no democratic deficit, as no democratic input is required to elect something that does not exist. Additionally, this deals with the bloated nature of the Lords as-is, for similarly obvious reasons. This model is not unique either, having been adopted at a national level in countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden – indeed, the devolved administrations are de facto unicameral systems. Proponents of this idea often argue that scrutiny could still be carried out by parliamentary committees, but without the Lords, these committees would be packed with MPs. And whilst MPs are often strongly empathetic and effective politicians, they can hardly be expected to have the same level of specific knowledge currently touted by many sitting Lords. MPs also typically have quite full-on workloads, and it remains to be seen whether the Commons has the collective competency in numbers to fill these new committee positions without its own respective expansion.
Direct election to the upper chamber was the basis of the shelved 2012 coalition reform bill, and the basis of many discussions around Lords restructuring. Nick Clegg’s plan would’ve seen a chamber of peers mostly elected, assigned in a somewhat open list system, similar, but not identical to Britain’s European election model. With peers elected proportionally from regions and nations of the UK alongside members appointed by the Prime Minister, on recommendation from a board. Other elected models, such as Billy Bragg’s ‘Secondary Mandate’ model are more proportional, assigning seats directly by vote share at a general election. Depending on how the list system functions, this model would grant more power to political parties, raising the concern that those on party lists may be there more for their political nous than their expertise. Additionally, whilst the Commons maintains election by first past the post, elections to the Lords by direct proportional representation would make peers arguably more representative of the public’s views than the Commons would be, creating a very real risk that the Lords could undermine the Commons.
To counteract the pitfalls of over-democratising the House, others have raised a plan of the House devised by sortition. This method, similar to how court juries are constructed, would see members drawn at random or by stratified sampling from amongst the public, and although this appears to amplify the voice of the populace, it has two glaring flaws. Firstly, this model offers no democratic input from the electorate, and with no mandate, these members of the public may not reflect the views of their communities. Moreover, probability dictates that allotted members are unlikely to have the same expertise in the specialist sectors that the current array of Lords provide our democracy, whose backgrounds have led to positive amendments and decisions that the Commons simply would not have made. As such, sortition does not create a House reflective of public opinion or one armed with the expertise to modify flawed legislation, but forms an unaccountable randomly chosen citizens assembly with no guarantee of representing the views of the general public, it’s the worst of all worlds.
If we wished to maintain the expert dynamic of the Lords, whilst still reconstituting it democratically, there exists a somewhat obscure model that could potentially fulfil both aspects, this being the ‘Vocational Upper House’. This is similar to a model used by the Republic of Ireland, which has an upper house, the ‘Seanad Éireann’ which is unique in this regard. The Seanad’s 60 seats are composed of three types of members. 18% Nominated by the Taoiseach, 10% elected by graduates of two Irish universities, and the rest nominated by vocational panels representing sectors of the Irish labour market (administrative, agricultural, industrial etc.) composed of TDs (Ireland’s equivalent of an MP) and associated organisations (such as the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland). These nominees are elected to the chamber by members of the lower house and local councillors.
At present, simply adopting the Irish model would not solve our major problems of democratic deficit, but by modifying the system to give the right to vote to those working within these sectors instead of other politicians, it would be possible to allow workers to choose who they thought best represented the interests and them of their vocation, taking all the expertise of the sector to the upper-House to represent them and their fellow workers. Additionally, whilst the amount of senators to each sector in Ireland are determined by legislation from 1947, by using employment statistics each election cycle, we could ensure that the representation sectors see is proportional to those working within those industries.
A truly radical model should seek to be inclusive and recognise those in other forms of work outside employment, such as unpaid carers, domestic housework, or parents raising children. In areas of high importance that are underrepresented in our sectoral makeup, such as the scientific research sector, a non-voting ‘crossbench’ of around 50 peers appointed by an independent panel could buttress the elected members to make up for any shortfalls in sectoral experience that may arise from the democratic process. Glasman has argued that such a refresh of the upper chamber could see a change to religious representation, with Lords Spiritual nominated from different faith communities alongside the Church of England, ensuring that Britain’s religious diversity, not just that of the dwindling membership of the Anglican Church, is properly expressed in our upper House. If this body was to be inclusive, it would be necessary to incorporate all of our society. Those who are on benefits, cannot work, or are disabled are still stakeholders in our society, and should see representation in the upper House.
It would be foolish to pretend there wouldn’t be problems with this system however, and there are many specifics that would need to be developed. But, unlike sortition, abolition and full democratisation, a vocational upper chamber with a small appointed crossbench democratises the House and amplifies the voice of the people, without sacrificing sectoral expertise or risking a constitutional conflict.
One major problem would likely dominate the debate however, that of the name. These members of the House may not be Lords, but what would be a more fitting title? The Workers Senate? The House of Labour? Perhaps that last one is a little too on the nose, but regardless, we must not be too hasty to call for the abolition of the upper-chamber without considering all the benefits a revised model could bring to our attempts at transforming our country and democracy.