Where next for Lords reform?

James Graham
27 August 2009

A cynic might conclude that Jack Straw's appointment to the Ministry of Justice in 2007 was a calculated move to create the illusion of progress while ensuring that nothing of substance actually happened. Despite Gordon Brown launching his premiership off the back of democratic renewal, the Ministry's productivity over the past two years that been startlingly low. The Constitutional Renewal Bill, now rebranded as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, will finally get its moment in the legislative sun in the next Parliamentary session, but will struggle to pass all the hurdles in time for a May general election. It will apparently include clauses to remove the last remaining hereditary peers. As for introducing elections to the second chamber, Straw ruled out legislating for that before a general election over a year ago.

At his Unlock Democracy/Guardian seminar yesterday however, Straw did at least indicate that the Commons might get sight of a draft bill over the next few months and might even get the opportunity to vote on some specific options for reform. It is a step forward, but a tiny one.

As for what the government line actually is on Lords reform, we are sadly no wiser than we were last year when the Lords reform white paper was published. Straw did at least indicate that the government preferred an "open or semi-open" regional list system to elect the Lords (the white paper had expressed no preference, worryingly even going so far as to reopen the possibility of using first past the post which Wakeham ruled out in 1999). He also indicated that there would be no formal vote on whether to have an 80% or 100% elected second chamber, the two options agreed by the Commons in 2007. Instead, his approach would be to introduce elected members in phases and defer the decision on whether to remove the last few appointed peers until the last possible moment, in 12-15 years.

I have to admit to having some sympathy for a gradualist approach. While an unelected Lords remains problematic, it is hardly our biggest constitutional problem and it makes sense to have some continuity between the old and the new system. I'm less convinced however by the notion expressed by Straw that such a softly, softly approach will assuage the opponents of reform like so many boiling frogs. It doesn't matter how thinly you slice it, the salami is liable to object. Establishing what kind of second chamber we want to end up with in principle sooner than later will, I suspect, save us a lot of hassle in the longer term.

Meg Russell made a number of good observations in her contribution to the seminar, although I'm not sure I agree with her mea culpa that she and Robin Cook should have gone along with the Wakeham proposals instead of holding out for more (a rump 20% elected second chamber would have been neither one thing nor the other and it seems hard to believe there would be much momentum for further reform). She was right to be clear that both a less powerful elected second chamber and a second chamber elected by first past the post would actually be backward steps. Sadly Jack Straw declined to confirm that he would oppose the latter, although he did at least suggest that the former wasn't even being considered.

Peter Facey expressed his concerned about semi-open list electoral systems, pointing out that the experience elsewhere is that they are in practice closed. If Straw was serious about welcoming independent elected members to the second chamber, he should support the single transferable voting system. Facey also made the point that retaining Anglican bishops in the second chamber whilst having no equivalent appointees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland makes no sense for a UK parliament.

Camden Councillor John Bryant also made a welcome contribution, suggesting that instead of retaining appointed members in the second chamber, the second chamber could follow local government scrutiny panels and temporarily co-opt experts to committees on an ad hoc basis. This would result in the second chamber being able to draw on a wider level of expertise than the current Lords.

Overall, the prospect of an elected second chamber remains distant. After two years of getting nowhere in the name of "building consensus" it appears that Straw will now be taking action, not out of a desire to push reform forwards but so as to put some clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives in the run up to the general election. This does at least have a couple of virtues. Firstly, it will force the parties to be more clear about where they stand precisely; if Cameron really wants to hold onto his mantle as the modernising "change" candidate it is time he was made to sweat for it. Secondly, it will help lock Labour into supporting Lords reform the next time they are in government (unlikely to be in 2010).

But Labour being reduced to this sort of low political posturing after thirteen years of missed opportunities is a sad epitaph. If Straw had actually delivered reform over the past two years instead of just talking about it his party - and UK politics in general - would almost certainly now be in a stronger position.

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