Monday, 6 August 2012

Not yet ready for reform - the Lords will keep sitting

The House of Lords has been awaiting reform for more than 100 years, and the government announced today that it would have to wait a few more years. The legislation intended to transform the second chamber (which is actually the upper house), has failed to garner the support of a sufficient number of Conservative MPs and so had no chance of being progressed speedily through parliament. The government has decided to count its losses and wait for a better time.

No need to mothball the wigs yet - The House of Lords wont be reformed as yet

Although this government is not the first that lost its resolve to reform the upper house, the defeat will cause ripples through the government coalition. The junior partners in the coalition had invested a lot of political capital into the legislation and some of their MPs are now looking for opportunities to scupper some of the pet projects of their Conservative fellows. Why the Lib Dems were so determined to see this legislation through is however less clear.

It was badly designed and poorly timed. The legislation would have created an elected chamber of deputies (80%) and a small number of senators who gained entry to the house by appointment (20%). The overall number of Lords (or presumably senators in any future reformed house) would have been cut to 450, a large and welcome reduction. Yet, the electoral part of the new house had serious flaws. It was not clear which boundaries were to be used, whether members of the upper house would represent the same constituencies as their colleagues in the lower house, and how to prevent the three main parties from dominating the nomination process.

The biggest flaw however was that this legislation was ill-timed insofar as it anticipated reforming the chamber before Scotland was to make a decision about whether it would remain in the UK. If Scotland were to leave the Union, the upper chamber would have to be reformed along the lines of a stronger regional representation of Wales and Northern Ireland, the two minor partners in the Union. If Scotland stays in the Union, a more federal arrangement would equally need to be found to placate the desire of Scottish voters to be properly represented in Westminster, as well as those in England who think that English voters got shortchanged by the current devolution arrangements.

In essence then, any reform of the upper house would need to take into account the centrifugal tendencies that were set into motion by devolution. A simple exchange of unelected peers with elected ones would have failed to address any of the major constitutional issues which Libdems are often so fond to discuss. There can also be little joy on the LibDem benches about some of its own peers in the House of Lords that openly advocated against the proposal. As with so many things, the House of Lords may look antiquated and out of touch from the outside, but once you are on the inside and make a living with it, you make your peace with its less agreeable features.

On balance however there is no doubt that the House urgently needs reform. While the Labour leadership may rejoice at the defeat of the government and the brewing trouble between the coalition partners, it has nothing to celebrate. The reform of the upper house is long overdue and to have scuppered a clear time table for reform does not give them any brownie points with potential voters.

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