Andreas Whittam Smith: A more 'democratic' Lords can only damage the Commons

If we believe we have a legitimate system of government - and the evidence is that we do - then there is no case for major constitutional change

Thursday 19 May 2011 00:00 BST

When Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, came to the House of Commons on Tuesday to present his plans for the reform of the House of Lords, Frank Dobson, the long-serving Labour MP, asked him this: "Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that a sounder approach would be to decide what we want the House of Lords to do and what its functions should be before we decide how it is made up? Otherwise, we are in the situation of picking the team before we have decided what game it is going to play."

That is a good question made all the more relevant by the fact that a number of countries get along without a second chamber and instead rely upon a single parliamentary body. The list includes New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, each one of them an effective state. Some of the others that possess an upper house do so for special reasons that do not apply to the United Kingdom. The US Senate, for instance, with its two members per state regardless of population, is partly designed to prevent the legislature being dominated by the big states. The Belgium Senate reflects the country's linguistic divisions and, by its very presence, helps to ease them. The Swiss upper house plays much the same role.

Rather than thinking deeply about these matters, however, the White Paper presented by Mr Clegg makes a series of assertions that are far from obvious. Take this one: "The House of Lords performs its work well but lacks sufficient democratic authority." And on the basis of this dubious proposition, the White Paper recommends a revolution in our constitutional arrangements. For the first time ever, members of the House of Lords would be elected – up to 80 per cent of them. Even a wholly elected body has not been ruled out. Elections would take place at the same time as general elections. Those chosen would serve for a single, non-renewable term of 15 years.

The big test here is whether we believe – or act as if we did – that we have a legitimate system of government. If we do, then there is no case for major constitutional change. Or to put it another way, are we satisfied that through the ballot box we have given our government sufficient authority to carry out its tasks? The evidence is overwhelming that we think this. Most of us pay our taxes and obey the law. The same couldn't be said in Italy, for instance, where distrust of government is centuries old. The signs that would suggest a lack of legitimacy simply aren't visible here.

What the Liberal Democrats are finding out the hard way is that what they had assumed was widespread discontent with our constitutional arrangements does not exist. Reform is well down our "to-do" lists. This absence of zeal applies as much to the House of Lords as it did in the case of our first-past-the-post voting system. There is no deeply felt need. That the Conservative Party would support legislation in these circumstances would run counter to its history and its character.

Moreover, increasing the so-called democratic authority of the House of Lords would have as a consequence a diminution in the power of the House of Commons. It's as simple as a see-saw. When one side rises, the other falls. Imagine that you had been elected to the House of Lords following Mr Clegg's reforms. You would feel a responsibility to those who had voted for you. If your view of their interests in a particular case was not, as you saw it, being properly taken into account by the House of Commons, then my guess is that you would do all you could to oppose the House of Commons in this matter. As Graham Stringer, the Labour MP, asked Mr Clegg on Tuesday "When the other place has 100 per cent elected Senators or Lords and they take a different view from him, how will he assert this House's authority over another elected House?"

However, the White Paper goes to much trouble to show that the relationship between the two houses wouldn't alter to the detriment of the House of Commons. Two arguments are made. In the first place it reminds us that two acts of Parliament already provide that, in certain circumstances, legislation may be passed without the agreement of the House of Lords. Yes, but the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 are, as the White Paper itself admits, longstops to which recourse is rarely made. Second, it states that the conventions governing the relationship will not be changed. One of these, however, is that the House of Lords should think very carefully about rejecting a Bill that the Commons has approved. That should obviously be the case where the House of Lords is unelected – but if it were elected and had a different view wouldn't its duty be to reject the House of Commons Bill and then see whether a compromise could be found that would satisfy both houses?

This process would look perfectly rational, but the consequence would be that the authority of the House of Commons would have been diminished. Democratic authority isn't an elastic concept. You cannot increase democratic authority over here without diminishing it over there. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

But what sort of people would be elected to the House of Lords? Some of them would be politicians not good enough to get elected to the House of Commons. The House of Lords would become a refuge for House of Commons rejects. Others would be attracted by the 15-year term that the White Paper promises elected members of the reformed House. Among these members there would probably figure disproportionately older MPs who, without losing salary, would be able to swop the uncertainties of the House of Commons for the safety of the House of Lords.

What we might expect has been well put by Anthony King, Professor of Government at Essex University. He recently wrote that a "democratically legitimate" House of Lords would "inevitably consist almost entirely of a miscellaneous assemblage of party hacks, political careerists, clapped-out retired or defeated MPs, has-beens, never-were's and never-could- possibly be's". And we want to give that lot democratic authority? Ugh.

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