After the defeat of AV, expect the next epic battle (and the next poisoned wooden spoon Cameron hands the Lib Dems) to be House of Lords reform. At this point I’d better declare an interest as having worked there (as an erstwhile Hansard reporter). Despite knowing the institution more intimately than I do any other, I don’t think I’ve written much about it before; this is because I find it quite difficult to make up my mind about what to do about the damn place.
Walter Bagehot famously quipped that “the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it”. Having sat through several postprandial hours of a debate on ‘the benefits of the Segway personal transporter’, it’s hard to disagree. It’s also hard, on the other hand, to keep one’s rational faculties clear when in the building and not be seduced by the awful, artificial and amusing work of Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry and its supremely confident Gothic (that is, explicitly non-Roman) assertion of British exceptionalism. I find it takes a great effort, and I can’t be alone in this, to disregard the indisputable aesthetic and technical accomplishments of the age of empire when weighing up its social, economic and moral pros and cons; too easy, in other words, to use beauty as a proxy for truth, justice, virtue. The whole place is a spectacular triumph of Victorian propaganda: the Soviet Union had its stirring anthem and its heroic art, the US has its sexy movies, and we had the Tudor rose and the portcullis. In the little reporters’ corner of the chamber, with some anonymous lifer suggesting to half a dozen of his fellows how to decide the makeup of a committee to determine the composition of a working group to investigate the regulation of the makeup of the committee, the eyes are inevitably drawn by the carved lions and unicorns, by the heraldic oak panels of the four patron saints, and eventually by the dazzling gilded ceiling whose ornaments and chandeliers seem to melt off it like stalactites, and your distracted reporter, overcome by a sort of reactionary Stendhal syndrome, finds himself transported to his own Burkean Ambrosia. (The Commons is much less ornate and perhaps cosier for it, but the most profound sensation to be had in the estate is to be alone at night in Westminster Hall, gazing up at the hammerbeam angels still keeping watch nine centuries on, and only dimly aware of the restless metropolis beyond the buttressed walls: on such occasions I always find myself communing with Bede and his sparrow.) So perhaps Bagehot would have been more accurate to say that the cure is to go and listen to it, while keeping your eyes shut.
I digress. The question is: what use does the place serve now, and how could it be improved? Here the traditionalist and the radical democrat in me clash (a problem Orwell had all the time). A few perceptions about the noble and not-so-noble Lords persist that are no longer quite accurate. Only 88 of the old hereditaries — Wilde’s old unspeakables — remain. The vast majority of the rest are life peers, appointed by various prime ministers; a few bishops are left (and are we really about to see a Conservative prime minister eject them?), and the law Lords have moved across the road to the Supreme Court. A lot of these are former or failed politicians, but a great many are also those who’ve excelled in various non-political fields: the arts, law, media, sport, business, academia, war. In this sense, at least, they could be considered more diverse than the Commons, which with every election becomes more and more the preserve of PPE Oxonians in their mid-40s from north London who have only ever worked in politics. The Lords, unlike the Commons, still has plenty of endearingly amateurish speakers (whom I always hope to avoid having to report on) and endearingly unsmooth operators. And despite Cameron’s additions, Labour still has more peers than the Tories.
The balance that needs to be struck is to combine the resilient independence of the incumbent Lords (who stood up to the previous government on, among other things, the chilling effects of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) with a greater (that is, any) popular mandate.
It seems inevitable, with the defeat of the AV referendum, that the Lords will become proportionately elected before the Commons ever does. There is one serious objection to this: that, by picking who appears on the lists and in what order, the party managers would retain or even strengthen control over this occasionally rebellious House. The Lords aren’t so easily whipped now, but their replacement senators (most of them presumably seeking re-election) could well be. Might the coalition, then, use this opportunity to strengthen the executive relative to parliament? That would surely be the opposite of what we should hope for.
So the extent to which we should welcome reform really depends on what sort of PR is on offer. If Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have complete control over the party lists, then what comes next might if anything be worse than what we have now. But if the government is actually willing to give power away — perhaps in the form of multi-member STV wards, or even open primaries, as are now used to pick some Commons candidates — then the public will have more say than the politicians, and the reformed chamber will have more legitimacy than the one it replaces. There is a great opportunity for something better, but we will have to wait and see whether we are given another stitchup instead.
Our zeal for reform shouldn’t lead us to assume that what is done in its name will necessarily be more truly democratic, rather than a pale imitation of the deeply dysfunctional Commons; instead, we have to hold the coalition to account and insist that the upper House becomes as democratic as it possibly can, and that it gives power away from politicians, both elected and appointed: on this occasion, we have to keep our eyes wide open.