Monday, 27 March 2006

The Red Benches

hareholdeHis Tonyness has flip-flopped (to turn the latest tedious New Labour anti-Tory stock phrase against him) into a position which is in favour of elections to the lords. He now believes that in the name of good legislation and oversight, the upper house should be prone to exactly the same pressures and prejudices to which the lower house is subject. I admit that this is a better pressure than the poor Finances of the political parties, but elections will not improve oversight one jot. In fact they will make it worse.

Fist of all, we should ask ourselves "is the Lords Broken at the moment?". I think the answer is as it's always been: "You wouldn't design it like this, but it appears to work, God knows how". There are issues where the public's perception of politics is at variance to the reality and the fact that the lords are appointed is one of them. Why is it a problem? There are real problems in politics: the government’s velvet-facist agenda, the introduction of thought-crime onto the British Statute books, the Police's power of arrest (on a whim, for anything), the increasing intrusion of the state into our lives. All of these problems have been acquiesced to by a supine public who are certainly not agitating for state funding of Parties or more elections (quite the opposite - the public can't be bothered to turn out even for general Elections). They're not particularly bothered about how the lords are appointed, just that they do their job.

So we should ask ourselves what the lords need to achieve: Scrutiny, oversight and independent assessment of new laws. The chamber appears to do this rather well, as their consistent rejection of New Labour's Orwellian project demonstrates.

Next we should ask ourselves why it can provide such good oversight and scrutiny: Well the lords are eminent people. They are of independent mind, no matter how they got their seat. And as they do not have to face elections, they are beholden to no party. They may however voluntarily take a party whip, but there's no sanction for leaving a party once ennobled. Because they have no democratic accountability, they are subordinate to the Lower house (hmmm, is that an oxymoron?), and the parliament acts (which this Government abuses with abandon) which serve to give this subordination the force of law. This is right.

If there were to be two elected chambers, each with its own democratic legitimacy, there is the risk of "cohabitation" to use the French phrase, with the attendant risks of gridlock in the legislature: their Lordships would not submit meekly to the Parliament act if they were elected. On the other hand, if the lords (or senators as they will inevitably be called in a fatuous un-British way) were an elected oversight committee, why would be public bother to turn out for elections of people who appear to have little obvious influence over the executive? They aren't particularly interested in turning out for the elections we've already got. Such elections would become meaningless mid-term opinion polls, make the business of Government more difficult, and strain the constitution - probably to breaking point.

So I conclude that Peers should sit for life and not be elected. So this begs the Question: Who then chooses the Lords?

That Blair chap's idea that some independent committee should do the choosing is flawed. Who chooses and oversees the committee. A partisan commons? - we're back to square one.

How about a large group of eminent, intelligent, independent and politically astute people: Their Noble Lordships themselves. This would be independent of Prime-Ministerial Lobbying, and on a "Dead Man's Shoes" basis, would be transparent, as independent of Psephology as the current system and democratic - because it would remain genuinely and obviously subordinate to the elected chamber. It will increase the independence of the Lords, remove the ability of the PM to stuff the chamber with party hacks and I guarantee the quality of people wearing Ermine will improve, and so would oversight.

Make the Lords self-selecting.


Momentary Academic said...

I'm just a silly American, but how long does one have to have a title of lord (or lady?) before being allowed admittance to the house?

It's all very confusing for me.

But here the senate is as close as one can get to the house of lords, I suppose.

Jackart said...

If you are enobled (allowed to style yourself "lord Grundy of borsetshire") then you sit in the Lords immediately. This is a title bestowed by the queen on the Advice of the PM.

If you are a hereditary peer (Ie there because your dad was), then you are subject to election. only 92 such peers sit, though there are hundreds of hereditary Lords knocking about

John East said...

I suspect all of the fans of democracy, i.e. almost everyone, will be looking for an elected second chamber now. I think this would be a mistake, but we might have to make the best of it.

At least having second chamber elections coinciding with The Commons mid-term point, which I assume is how it would be done, might put the brakes on a bad government sooner than would otherwise have been the case. We might be better protected from four or five year cycle boom and bust policies as well.

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