Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Prediction: there will be no House of Lords reform

Today, I announce my big prediction for the current Parliament: we will most definitely not see House of Lords reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has noted here plans to reform the upper chamber. There are no elected Lords at present. The plan is to change this to 300 Lords (which is much less than at present) with each (most?*) serving 15 year terms (at present a Lord serves for life and it used to be inherited) and elected (none are elected) by proportional representation (after a major approximately 70-30 vote in favour of retaining First Past the Post instead of the Alternative Vote).

Far less ambitious plans have gone nowhere fast. It is very difficult to see this becoming law. One reason is we can expect vocal opposition to the selection of Lords by proportional representation. Most Tory MPs have campaigned long and hard against a change to FPTP only a few weeks ago. It is very difficult to imagine their being happy to support their government's move to proportional representation for the House of Lords (not least because -- what would be next? -- it might open a door to proportional representation in the House of Commons).

I also suspect that the complete removal (unless elected) of all Bishops may also be a major stumbling block. I have long wanted their removal, but the Lords Spiritual have always sat alongside the Lords Temporal. I would imagine there are various constitutional issues concerning the Bishops and Parliament, not least the most important of all: the Archbishop of Canterbury. Moreover, other religious leaders have been made Lords so it is not only Anglican clergy in the upper house. Again, while I am all for this particular change, it is a major change and I suspect that it is a battle far more difficult to win than not.

This is a reform that perhaps tries to do too much. It is not a reform of any one aspect, but many reforms rolled into one. I suspect the public may have little patience to wade through the arguments in favour and it will have little public support. While perhaps a great majority may wish to see an elected House of Lords, it is not a chamber of much concern. The expenses scandal was one that affected MPs far more. Moreover, it has been the House of Lords that has consistently opposed various curtailments of civil liberties and other major changes arising from the House of Commons. It was also far more difficult to persuade on Iraq. This "other place" has done well as a check-and-balance on the House of Commons. For this reason, people may wonder why a major change is worth contemplating -- and, no doubt, there will be big costs in administering the changes.

So why make a big public announcement about reforms certain to fail? The reason is simple: it is an easy way to calm Liberal Democrat supporters. Clegg can look like he's doing something on behalf of his base. Cameron has also been in favour of an elected upper chamber. If it wins the day, then both can claim glory (and the Liberal Democrat leader may recover some lost political points amongst the public). However, if it loses (as is virtually certain), then it is no harm done to Cameron and may even boost Clegg as "the reformer".

The big problem with all of this is that sometimes certain events shape a political career. Despite his many achievements, Tony Blair will be forever remembered -- and negatively -- for his support of war with Iraq. He lost the trust of many along the way and this has tarnished his legacy thus far (however unfairly). Clegg's major problem is actually something much less: tuition fees. Liberal Democrats didn't seem to talk about much else during the general election. Clegg told us "no more broken promises" and the like. All Liberal Democrat candidates signed a large poster confirming their opposition to all fees -- and then their party proposed (via Vince Cable) and most supported not merely their retention or rise, but a trebling of fees from about £3,000 to £9,000. Not unlike Blair, Clegg lost the trust of many with this move (a move to secure a vote on AV? Oops...).

He may hope to rescue his political capital with a public campaign on House of Lords reform. The question remaining is whether it is too late to change his public conception.

* I am hoping to find Clegg's plan in full as some reports are that the elected upper chamber would still have 20% unelected. If this is correct, then it would be interesting to see how many of these (if any) are either appointed and/or Anglican bishops.


Richard Baron said...

Hello Thom

The draft bill is available here:


The document starts with a summary, then a more detailed statement of the proposals, then the draft bill, then the explanatory notes. I assume that the summary and detailed statement count as the "accompanying white paper", since no other document appears to be available (as at 1930 on 17 May)

In answer to your specific questions:

12 Church of England bishops would get to stay;

the basic proposal is to elect 80 per cent of the members, but electing all of them is also an option.

STV is the lead option for the electoral system.

Some material on the recent history of House of Lords reform is available here:


And no, it isn't going to happen any time soon.

The Brooks Blog said...

This is absolutely brilliant, Richard. Thanks so much! These proposals seems ill-thought out because they try to reform (in my view) far too much and are far too open-ended. Perhaps it would have been far, far better if a commission were in place to work on a set of proposals that they could recommend. The current plans look like "so, who's for an elected Lords? All those in favour - so what should we do?"

I further speculate that the calls for a mainly elected chamber - but most probably keeping unelected bishops - will be a curious sticking point whose roots are probably old and constitutional, but the public will have a hard time buying the need for an elected house with unelected bishops as a better institution than what we have at present. As you say, reform is unlikely to happen any time soon. I entirely agree with you.