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After some stumbling, the government looks set to press ahead with reform of the house of Lords. Should ministers get their way, the appointed House of Lords will be replaced with an institution largely made up of Senators, elected on 15 year terms.
On the face of it, this is a democratizing reform. So why do I oppose it? It’s because, like all proper radicals, I am a uni-cameralist. Parliaments based upon upon two houses have always been conceived as a mechanism to check democracy, and to limit the capacity of elected governments to rapidly alter the status quo. This may be all well and good for protecting us against “tyranny”, as those 17th century liberals who bequeathed us the idea of the balanced constitution put it. Yet such a system also offers all too much protection from radical change for those who benefit most from the current order of things.
Conor Burns MP is right to argue that should reforms pass, there will never be another radical prime minister, another Thatcher or another Clement Atlee. Government will be hemmed in by a permanent blocking minority.
Though, officially speaking, the Lords will not gain any new powers, the supremacy of the commons will nonetheless be challenged. This is because the relative power of the two houses is not simply a function of formal constitutional arrangements. As things stands, the lords uses it’s full blown blocking powers very sparingly. This is because it lacks legitimacy, and paradoxically, because it remains subject to the threat of lord reform if it acts to much like a spoilt child. In other words, what we have now is something that is not all that far from a de facto unicameral system.
If the reforms go through, the Lords will be very much emboldened by its enhanced democratic legitimacy. Nonetheless, it will lack one crucial element of a democratic body, and that is accountability. Senators will be elected on 15 year terms. Moreover, they will not be entitled to stand for re-election. As such they will be under no democratic pressure to keep their promises, or to consider the popular will. In this respect, Lords reform reflects the whiggish ideals which are close to Nick Clegg’s heart. It is to be body of independent men, not swayed by the need to appeal to the ignorant multitudes, but capable of checking the elected and accountable commons. And that is the last thing we need.
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