Nick Clegg and Lords Reform a car crash waiting to happen

The government was forced this week to abandon a vote on a timetable for the Lords Reform Bill, kicking reform of the upper chamber into the long grass once more. Why didn't Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg propose a genuinely democratic House of Lords as part of a plan for a clean, strong politics for Britain? Why wasn't sortition considered? Because the Lib Dems are part of the 'broken establishment' that their leader loves to deride, and as such Clegg's efforts are destined to fail.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 July 2012

From the beginning Nick Clegg was warned that the way he was going about Lords reform was a disaster. Oh no, was the response, a smack of firm, final reforming authority was all that was needed. After one hundred years he was going to deliver. No more prevarication! No further calls for more democracy or big ideas were necessary! No mobilisation of public support based on clear principles! Clegg would roll up his sleeves and history would be put in its place.

What would he do? He’d deliver what was essentially the Jack Straw’s 2008 White Paper. This proposed a slow-motion replacement of the Second Chamber by electing tranches of politicians (for fifteen-year terms) over at least a twenty-year period, while the grim reaper thinned out existing peers. 

Back in 2008, I dedicated a chapter of The Athenian Option to a critique of the White Paper, its proposed replacing of the Lords by eking out the present incumbents over another generation and its ghastly absence of any spirit of reform. The book, written with Peter Carty, sets out the need for and practicality of utilising sortition (meaning a jury-style selection of regular people tasked with holding the legislators to account, for example by deciding if proposed laws are written in understandable English). To no avail.

Six weeks ago, I was invited at short notice to a discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister himself. The official report of the meeting declares that he will:

host a round table of think tanks and democracy campaigners at Portcullis House. He will chair a discussion on ‘Britain’s Broken Establishment’, and what he is doing in government to reform British institutions and the political system.

We had an hour.

But it was a last-minute attempt to build a wider network of support.

There were ten of us.

Clegg opened with a swinging denunciation of the existing system. His prepared statement, which is also carried in full on his official site, has him saying,

"I’ve been in Government for two years now. I have looked at the institutions of our establishment close up. And I can tell you, I am more determined than ever to see them change. Britain’s broken establishment is now well past its sell by date… The economic crisis and political crisis aren't separate. They are part and parcel of a deep failure of our established institutions. You cannot build a healthy economy without strong, clean politics…. I genuinely believe that we are at a critical moment… I really think if we can't tackle these deep problems in the established institutions of our country now, you'd have to wonder if we ever can… We are at a critical, precious moment - we must seize it. I am more determined than ever to reform the broken institutions of this country. Unless, we do, we will never be the nation we could be. There is a better Britain bursting to escape the shackles of an old, tired, failed establishment.”

He was stronger still on the day, saying emphatically “the status quo is not sustainable”. “The need”, he continued, “is for us to explain why the status quo is not acceptable and make the case for reform”.

“You”, he said, looking at us in his fresh and attractive way, “need to make the case by sharing the state of things. I want you to send out the message to the people”.

What could be done? Peter Facey of the campaign for constitutional reform Unlock Democracy said Clegg should highlight the systemic corruption of the existing Lords. Will Straw of Labour think-tank IPPR diplomatically hinted that a touch of responsibility, if not remorse, for breaking manifesto pledges might help the credibility of his critique. I said that experience showed successful reform released public energy by being imaginative and relating specifics to the whole, perhaps it was not too late to embrace the jury system. Others also called for direct participation. Only one voice urged Clegg to redouble his existing strategy. The Young Fabian told him that the absolute sovereignty of the executive gave him the power to ram through change and the populace would be grateful for such leadership. For a moment the Order of Lenin hung uneasily in the air like a stale fart (and if this is how the new generation of Labour activists think, their party faces oblivion).

Clegg summed up: we were all saying there needs to be more participation and perhaps ‘people’s panels’ (missing the point there). He didn’t catch the quiet, clear insistence that real reform means the centre demonstrably letting go. The 60 minutes were up, his next meeting called. There was no follow-up that I was made aware of.

What should Clegg have done to achieve a democratic second chamber? The best example of the kind of approach needed, to be set out within Westminster, is Laura Sandys’ short, model call to support reform – she is the Tory MP for South Thanet. The starting point has to be what she states in her conclusion (more politely than I do, given the number of her colleagues on the gravy train). The Lords is a corrupt and improper legislative chamber, stuffed with figures paid to represent vested interests. Laura says it simply, it is the duty of parliament to rid the country of “patronage”. 

Clegg says that the way the Lords are appointed offends him. He denounces the system and its ‘Establishment’ as “broken”. But he does not expose and attack the Lords as he easily could. Instead he has permitted the stereotype of the Lords as old buffers who need modernising to prevail. However, the central objection to the current house is one that calls for its immediate abolition. At present it is constituted to put the paid servants of corporate power into the heart of the legislative process. The brilliant research of Andrew Robertson shows, peer by peer, that a quarter of Tory lords are on the pay-role of commercial health providers and their lobbyists. Research by the invaluable Bureau of Investigative Journalism has just demonstrated that 124 out of the main body of 775 lords have links to financial institutions and take a disproportionately large number of seats on committees scrutinising policy that affects the City.

Historically, when the Lords was a hereditary chamber, it represented the interests of the landed aristocracy. Today it is filled with the hired hands of corporate aristocracy. But at least the former were open and honest in the exercise of their privilege. Our barons camouflage their grasping influence behind the facade of our political class and its ermined placemen. 

Clegg riles against a broken system – rightly so. But he does not nail this intolerable state of affairs which, were it to be loudly exposed by a political leader, would collapse in infamy just like the intrusive tyranny of Murdoch. Why doesn’t he do so, why doesn’t he force the issue when the prize he desires would be his were he to do so? This is where it is hard not to believe that he and his party are part of the broken system he denounces and that they too do not have clean hands. The parliamentary party of the Liberal Democrats includes 105 peers and 57 MPs. Nearly twice as many are part of the problem as are part of parliament. Robertson’s research shows ten Lib Dem peers have their pockets lined by private health interests. A much smaller percentage than the Tories but intolerable none the less. If Clegg were to speak the truth about our upper chamber he would have to answer the question, ‘Why are you there?’ and he’d have a party split as well, with many of the most experienced, influential and the wealthy party members objecting that he was going ‘too far’.

The most decisive part of the Sandys approach is the intolerable presence of ‘patronage’; the most authoritative is the connection she makes between transforming the Lords to strengthen the Commons. She approaches parliament as a whole, looking at the legislative process in both chambers and how they interact, and claims the democratisation of the Lords done well will strengthen the quality and influence of the Commons. Whether you agree with her or not in terms of Clegg’s proposed Bill, this is the approach that has to be taken for reform to be credible and convincing. It was one thing for the Blair crew under the determined captaincy of Derry Irving to ram through devolution and Human Rights without addressing the constitution as a whole or the role of parliament. But they showed that you can alter the very nature of one half of the palace of Westminster itself and pretend that it is piecemeal and everything else can carry on as before, as if the Lords were a mere plug-in or ermined dongle. 

This is a fundamental weakness of the Clegg approach. It’s obvious that any such change should be ratified by referendum, if necessary at the same time as the General Election. It’s absurd and insulting to the public to argue that because all parties were committed to Lords reform in their manifestos that this amounts to a conscious public endorsement, especially as the Lib Dems are now the last ones who can claim that manifesto commitments are binding. The real objection that Clegg has to a referendum is that he fears he might lose one. This is a real fear because the arguments for his approach are not robust enough to withstand a popular consultation. 

The reform of parliament, for this is what replacing the Lords means, demands clarity and coherence about parliament as a whole. To overcome the vested interests ensconced in a status quo that they are determined to make all too sustainable for themselves, popular anger with the present system must be aroused until it becomes overwhelming. And to gain assent for a replacement this has to be more than a continuation of current party politics with a small twist, like elections for one-term, fifteen-year positions.

This is where sortition comes in, at least for those genuinely committed to a democratic replacement of the Lords who also acknowledge the undemocratic nature of party politics today. At any rate, we need ideas and proposals that go further than Labour’s well-meaning campaign for a democratic upper house.

It was predictable that the old regime would crush a Clegg-who-knows-best. But its success is a profound defeat for democracy. However long it may last, the status quo does not deserve to be sustained and its victory should not for a moment be regarded as bestowing an iota of legitimacy. 

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData