Sunday, January 24, 2010

House of Lords reform and the Conservatives - an example of self-interest when it really matters

The news that the Conservatives are proposing amendments to the Constitutional Reform Bill, removing the clauses that remove the final tranche of hereditary Peers from the House of Lords, should really come as no surprise, given that most of the remaining ninety-two are Conservatives. However, there is an element of logic to it.

Firstly, a declaration of interest (or two). I am married to a member of the House of Lords, for those who don't know me (and there will be some). In addition, I am a member of the Management Board of 'Unlock Democracy', who run a campaign to elect the Lords. And yes, I can see the contradiction there...

At the moment, the Lords is fairly evenly balanced. Labour are the largest party, with the Conservatives not far behind. The Liberal Democrats hold the balance between the two with a bit to spare. The cross-benchers very rarely coalesce behind one position, being notionally independent (that isn't always so, but there you go), and the Bishops don't vote that much, unless on moral/ethical issues.

However, strip out the hereditaries, and it becomes much easier for Labour to get legislation through the Lords, something which does exercise them. Under Tony Blair's relatively enlightened leadership, Labour tended to seek a balance of forces, rather than a majority, and there would, probably, have been a deal whereby Conservative Peers would be nominated to fill the gaps in their ranks. Under Gordon Brown, a much more partisan figure, that likelihood is more illusory.

Yes, under an incoming Conservative administration, David Cameron could appoint a whole tranche of new Peers, but it would serve to demonstrate that he doesn't have any intention of reforming the House of Lords - and given the indications that any such reform would be a 'third term priority, shorthand for never - and would be contrary to talk of democratic renewal. So, opposition to the Constitutional Reform Bill makes sense, at least from the perspective of Conservative self-interest.

There is also some irony in the proposals, as the hereditaries who remain in the House of Lords are the only ones with any democratic mandate at all, given that they had to fight a contest to be amongst those who remained after the first round of reforms. Some have been elected through the rather bizarre system of by-elections. All of them actively want to serve, and their attendance record and levels of participation are pretty good.

However, when all is said and done, the only real solution to the question "what to do with the House of Lords?" is proper reform, with an elected second chamber, open lists and all that goes with that. I'm not seeing a rush towards that by the reds or the blues...

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