Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 9 July 2012

I have reservations about this bill but we need Lords reform

There is a tendency in politics that once your side has come forth with its proposals, bill or other form of announcement, for activists and certainly parliamentarians to row in behind them. There is also a less edifying tendency to then try and shoot down any opposition to them rather than actually listen to and engage with opponents.

As such, I find myself in a slight quandary as regards the Lords reform bill that is making its way through parliament at the moment.

We desperately need democratic reform of the Lords. For over 100 years parties of all hues have promised it will happen but almost always when it has come to the crunch, vested interests have closed ranks and prevented it. The only exception to this was the abolition of the hereditary peers by Labour which was an improvement but was supposed to be the first stage of a process that then petered out.

It is always easier to argue for the status quo than it is to argue for change. The existing system is there by default. If we are going to go to the trouble of changing it we have to convince a lot of people, all of whom will have different ideas about what a second chamber should be.

So I'll come right out and say it. I do not personally think the Lords bill as it is currently constituted is the best way we could reform the second chamber. I have two issues. Firstly, I think the idea of 15 year terms with members unable to run more than once will reduce democratic accountability. It is the fact that MPs (mostly) know they will be back before the electorate in at most a few years time that keeps them responsive to their views. This will undoubtedly be weaker under the proposed system than it is for the Commons. Secondly I think we should not have dropped our plans to use STV as the system in England, Scotland and Wales.

But I also understand that if my concerns were addressed it would throw up other issues that may weaken the case for reform or otherwise render it more politically difficult to pass. For example if instead of 15 year terms they were 5 year terms then complaints about making it a rival to the Commons would intensify. And if we used STV then there would be a risk that it could shine a very unflattering light on First Past the Post (which although I think would be a good thing, many others would not). Also, with the size of constituencies for the reformed chamber being so large STV could be unworkable. But if we reduced the size too much to make it more workable lots of MPs would get very nervous about more elected representatives with only slightly diluted legitimacy on their patch. Etc. etc. etc.

This is what would happen with any proposed change. That is why we have never had substantial reform in over a century. And why despite these reservations I still very strongly feel that this bill needs to pass. Pretty much any move to a wholly or largely elected second chamber is worthwhile in my view precisely because if we don't bite the bullet now we'll still be arguing about it in 20 years time.

I appreciate that some in my party may not appreciate my candour on this, especially if it comes to a referendum and opponents will happily use arguments I have set out here against change. But I have to call it as I see it. I am uncomfortable with some of the changes here but you can't always get what you want in life.

In the end, we should not make the best the enemy of the "much better than what we currently have".

1 comment:

Giles Gregg said...

Better to do it badly than not at all?