Back to the 20th Century
That House of Lords reform Bill is dead. The two questions now are: Can a different Lords reform plan succeed, and, if so, what would it be? I suspect the answer to the first question is no, but let us assume for a moment that it is yes. What changes would Nick Clegg have to make?
What was extraordinary about this week’s debate was that the idea of 15-year non-renewable terms for elected senators turned out to be so unpopular. I recall thinking it quite a good idea when it was first put forward by Lord Wakeham in his Royal Commission in 1999, precisely because it would provide such a weak democratic mandate that it could not represent a threat to that of the Commons. Yet that is also what is wrong with it. What is surprising is that it has taken 13 years – almost the length of a putative senator’s term – for us to find this out.
Like a lot of constitutional reform, the 15-year terms become part of a supposed consensus because they seem to solve one problem, but then come apart when subjected to reality-based therapy. They are a stupid idea, and have to be amended.
The same goes for the form of election, proportional representation with closed party lists (that is, voters cannot express preferences between candidates of the same party on the list) in large regions. Unlike the 15-year terms, that was sprung on us late in the day, only a few weeks ago. It was a hideous idea when it was adopted (by Tony Blair and Jack Straw) for the European Parliament elections, and it is a hideous idea now. It too will have to be changed.
So how should Clegg now amend his proposals? I looked back at The Independent leading article on the Wakeham report, on 21 January 2000, which I wrote, and found this:
There is a better way to reform the Lords, one that comes from an unlikely source – the former Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern [pictured]. But it was he, in his inquiry, who came up with the ingenious idea of a mostly elected body that staggered its elections so that it always possessed a democratic mandate with which to challenge Government; would most likely be of an opposing political hue; but whose mandate was also older than, and inferior to, that of the Commons, so the Commons would always have “the last word”. It is not an outrageous pollution of the democratic ideal to suppose that 10 or 20 per cent of the membership could be supplemented by figures of ability and independence. They, in turn, could be appointed by an electoral college which we could all vote for.
Well, it is not my preferred model,* but if the House of Commons really wants a mostly-elected Upper House, which it said it did by 462 votes to 124 last night, although I suspect it did not mean it, Lord Mackay’s design has a better chance of winning enough support for a timetable motion.
*Since you ask, I favour an all-appointed Upper House, chosen by the political parties in proportion to votes cast nationally at the general election (in the most recent case, Conservatives 36%, Labour 29%, Liberal Democrats 23% and Others 12%).Tagged in: house of lords, lords reform
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