Britain’s “Senate” (the House of Lords) has long been a rather peculiar place. Until recently, its membership was made up of the hereditary aristocracy, some bishops, judges, and ‘life peers’ (usually retired politicians, cronies of one political party or another, and other worthies). Democratic, it wasn’t. Promising democratic reform, Blair reduced the hereditary element to a rump, and added a legion of stooges and cronies (the police are reportedly now taking a look at the basis for some of these appointments). Democratic reform was, oddly, postponed.
Now, years later, a plan for further reform has been cobbled together. And, guess what, it’s still not democratic.
After years of deadlock on Lords reform, a consensus is said to be so imminent that the proposals are expected to be put to a free vote in the Commons after Christmas, with the first elections and appointments to the new upper house taking place at the next general election.The Tories and Liberal Democrats are holding out for a bigger proportion to be elected. They remain concerned that following the loans for honours scandal, Labour plans to retain the power to make some political appointments…Under the proposals, the Lords would be reduced in size from 741 members to about 450. Combined with the Commons, it would still mean that parliament was twice as large as the 535-strong US Senate and House of Representatives. No single party would be allowed to command an overall majority, no matter how big its majority in the Commons. A commission of nine members, a third of whom would be selected by the party leaders, would be set up to make appointments to the chamber. They would have a duty to ensure that the new House of Lords reflected the religious, racial and gender balance of the UK, transforming the predominantly ageing white male composition of the Lords into a multi-ethnic body of younger men and women.
Britain’s Conservatives should oppose this fix. They won’t, of course, but then they have become part of the problem, not the answer.
We’ll have to turn instead to the Pub Philosopher, who, choking into his beer, has some characteristically trenchant comments: “the voters to elect the legislature’s upper chamber might be OK for foreigners but the British, it seems, cannot be trusted to make the right choices. Political cronyism and jobs for the boys (and girls) would, according to Jack [Straw], achieve a better outcome than allowing the horrid voters to elect the upper chamber. The piece on religious representation is interesting. The number of bishops would be reduced from 26 to 16, which is a good start…”
Indeed it is. Zero, would be better still, but zero is, apparently, not on the agenda. What will, apparently, be on the agenda is ex officio representation for other faiths, in other words, multiculuralism, not democracy. For all their fine new words, it remains clear that Britain’s Labour government still do not understand the profound challenge that Britain, and Europe, face.
Above all, the proposal is simply insulting: “Why is it that other democratic countries get to elect most of the members of their legislatures and Britain doesn’t? Telling foreigners that we still have hereditary nobles and religious representatives in our parliament is like telling people that your mum still buys all your clothes. It’s embarrassing and it makes you feel not quite grown-up.”