Think how good the House of Lords could be

What we need is more mavericks, individuals and expertise rather than more tribalism

Share

There are few things British leaders love to do more than lecture the rest of the world on democracy, emboldened by their place at the helm of the self-styled mother of parliaments. But as another clutch of cronies, toadies and wealthy party donors are clad in ermine and squeezed on to the packed benches of the House of Lords, how antiquated and corrupt our system of government must appear around the globe.

The latest people given the right to lord it over the rest of the country and have an input into the laws of the land include at least five people from all three main parties who have been substantial donors. Nearly two centuries after the first Reform Act swept away rotten boroughs, it remains shamefully possible for rich people to buy themselves a place in Parliament – plus, of course, a fancy title for their business cards.

Then there are the former MPs, the failed mayoral candidates, the party apparatchiks and the partisan lobbyists – their slavish loyalty rewarded with a peerage. The latest list, announced on Thursday, is, as ever, sprinkled with such predictable and often-dreary names. Yet as Douglas Carswell, the free-thinking Tory MP, told me, lickspittles are the last people you want to fill a chamber existing to examine the lower house’s legislation.

It is not just those scarlet robes that look Ruritanian. For every person such as paralympian Chris Holmes or race equality campaigner Doreen Lawrence deservedly elevated to the Lords, there are at least a dozen unworthy candidates handed the keys to power and influence in return for their money or monotonous support. Meanwhile, there remain 92 individuals there by dint of aristocratic birth and 26 bishops from one state-endorsed church – ridiculous relics of our nation’s feudal and God-fearing past.

It is all so unseemly, and it plays into public alienation from party politics. Yet still more and more people are pumped into the peerage, so that a body that once had barely 50 members has swollen to become the biggest second chamber in the Western world. The numbers in the Lords were slashed back to a sinister-sounding 666 in bungled reforms 14 years ago; today, they have bounced back to 838, each one permitted to claim hefty attendance allowances worth £40,000 a year courtesy of the beleaguered British taxpayer.

In recent years, prime ministers from both sides have contributed to this hyperinflation by abusing their powers of patronage. Margaret Thatcher created an average of 18 new peers a year, but Tony Blair more than doubled this to 37 a year, appointing 374 during his decade in office. David Cameron is filling the chamber still faster. When Thatcher left office after 11 years, there were seven names on her list of resignation honours; when Gordon Brown left office after a mere three, his list comprised no fewer than 32 names.

The problem is not just one of too little room on the red benches; it is that we are stuck with a system that stinks and belongs to a bygone age. It is little wonder that recent lobbying scandals have emanated often from the upper house. Yet one after another, learned reports have disappeared into the dust and attempted reforms have foundered. Under 11 years of New Labour there were four White Papers, two free votes, one Royal Commission and a joint committee of both houses. The Coalition, meanwhile, almost fell apart over its attempt to introduce electoral legitimacy to the Lords.

The failure of the Coalition’s attempt at reform last year showed that MPs in the Commons have no intention of undermining their own democratic authority. Yet for all this, the curious thing is how well the Lords works – as I glimpsed this week when giving evidence at a select committee’s inquiry into soft power and aid spending. It was chaired, rather charmingly, by Lord Howell, who the next day personified the idea of the bumbling peer  with his daft comment on the “desolate” North-east.

The discussion was sharp but courteous; members of the upper house are still very polite to each other. And it was good to see someone such as Lord Ramsbotham – a former general and such an impressive chief inspector of prisons – still playing a role in public life.

Although the average age of the Lords is well past retirement – at 69, some 19 years older than their counterparts in the Commons – it has a recent record of being the more progressive half of parliament, freed of the need to bow to the forces of electoral populism.

Just over a decade ago, peers opposed cutting the homosexual age of consent; in June, they backed gay marriage with a bigger majority than the lower chamber. This highlights the unexpected reality of the Lords: more liberal, more urbane and more competent when it comes to scrutinising legislation.

As the party system crumbles, it becomes even more important to stop the House of Lords from becoming stuffed with all these sleazy political appointments that so demean Britain. Yet would an elected second chamber really be an improvement? Parliament needs more mavericks, more individuals and more expertise rather than more tribalism, more sycophants and more over-promoted political advisers.

This is the real challenge as we seek to remake our democracy in the digital age and re-engage citizens with the political process.

Twitter: @ianbirrell

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence