I’m going to start my Lords Reform Day post on something of a dissenting note: I don’t believe that an elected House of Lords would be the best possible second chamber for the UK. Democracy has little merit beyond its empirical tendency to produce less awful governments than most real-life alternatives. As opinion polls regularly highlight, the popular will is something that should be kept well away from the corridors of legislation.
Democracy has less dire consequences than other systems because public outrage generally prevents governments from doing too many utterly egregious things, whereas tyrants can do whatever they like under the impression that it’s beneficial. This hardly suggests a Mystical Wisdom of the People, merely that the people don’t much like Stalinist or Mugabe-ish behaviour… Nonetheless – no, not even nonetheless, because of that – it’s vitally important that the House of Lords should be reformed.
Democracy works only as long as governments find it hard to do what they want. The US is the longest-lasting large democracy precisely because its system is designed to make it almost impossible for anybody to do anything. This has led to its remarkable success in defending civilised values from the will of the American public, who are even more reactionary and barbaric than our own homegrown rabble.
Labour has assumed a similar role in British politics to the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan: it’s where all the party-political action happens and while other parties are allowed, their only role is to be a hilarious sideshow. Nobody sensible believes Labour are going to lose a General Election anytime soon.
The UK’s political system already ensures that a sizeable Commons majority gives a government far more power than would be desirable. Worse, Labour’s half-arsed reform plans have added a whole load of party apparatchiks to the Lords to rubberstamp whatever stupid legislation the Commons pass. Meanwhile, the Lords’ status as a National Joke ensures that any attempts to stymie the worst legislative excesses can be overriden under the Parliament Act without anyone kicking up much of a fuss.
This leaves us entirely reliant on judges to protect us from the whims of the administration. They’re doing a remarkably good job so far, despite jeers and brickbats from authoritarian oafs. They have not been moved by the bigoted suggestions from the rightwing press and its readers that we should intern Funny Foreigners forever without trial, and have upheld the principles and provisions of the Human Rights Act. Good work, bewigged fellows.
Still, I’d rather have a little more protection from the threat of elected tyranny. My preferred solution would be to select by random lottery a set of people of diverse levels of intelligence, education, political views and levels of political engagement, and give them full veto power over the Commons’ legislation. Oddly enough, this isn’t very far from the pre-1911 Lords: birth is pretty much a lottery…
In the absence of widespread popular support for a chamber selected by lot, the proposals from groups such as Elect The Lords seem like a least-worst option. The Lords would mostly be elected, but the system would be proportional, terms would be longer, and elections would be staggered, ensuring that the majority of Lords would generally disagree with the government on contentious issues – which is the point.
So despite my antipathy towards increasing the role of elected officials in the political system, I’ve signed up as a member of the Elect The Lords campaign – and I’d recommend you do the same.