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The House of Lords Is Bigger Than Lord Sewell - Which Is Why It Shouldn't Be Abolished

31/07/2015 12:07 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

Probably the least surprising thing to come out of the Lord Sewell scandal has been calls, as usual, to abolish the House of Lords. Such calls are firstly overreactions, and secondly they are chronically misguided as to the value of the Lords today.

It need hardly be stated that the reputation of the House of Lords is perhaps even worse than that of the House of Commons, with the only images beamed to us on a regular basis (outside of BBC Parliament) being of a half-empty Chamber, of which half of the attendees in clear view appear less than interested in the discussions to hand. Moreover, with Parliamentary corruption and expenses scandals two of the hot-button issues in the public imagination today, the Lord Sewell scandal would surely appear an irresistible story for any good journalist. Unfortunately, such a story is similarly irresistible to reactionary elements - traditionally in the Liberal Democrats who have long held that the Lords should be replaced with an elected second chamber - who would argue that this scandal was somehow representative of a moral turpitude which goes to the root of the chamber, and therefore shows why we must abolish it. Such a position appears little more than political opportunism; to impute the misconduct of a single Peer (who has since resigned, and who could have been expelled anyway thanks to reforms in 2014) on the entire chamber, to propose the non-sequitor of elections as the solution, on grounds that are ultimately ideological.

However, more importantly, even the act of holding up Lord Sewell as a prima facie reason to abolish the Lords in its current form betrays a deeper problem, namely the assumption that Lord Sewell's actions, rather than the performance of the chamber at its job, is the appropriate lens through which to assess whether the Lords should remain as is. It is submitted that, if the House of Lords is assessed on its merits - as it should be - the case for its abolition looks decidedly weak.

The role of the House of Lords is primarily a revising chamber, and it has been such since the passage of the two Parliament Acts, the first of which ended de jure the idea of parity between the two chambers and asserted the supremacy of the House of Commons. Such a role is firstly ideally suited to a chamber that is not elected; the longstanding worry of Conservative politicians that an elected chamber would be able to demand more powers is far from fanciful, and an elected chamber would surely be able to demand more power. Such concerns about the balance of legitimacy - at least on a superficial level - do not arise when one chamber contains precisely no members which are elected by universal franchise. Moreover, the balance of legitimacy would be complicated even further had the Liberal Democrats' proposals for rolling elections, in which case it would be difficult to determine which chamber more accurately represented the will of the people, and therefore normatively which should be supreme. Therefore, if we are committed to the second chamber as a revising one - as all parties appear to be - the idea of abolishing the Lords should be met with considerable scepticism.

More importantly still, the House of Lords is effective at its role; indeed, it routinely has more success against the government of the day than the House of Commons. Throughout Tony Blair's first two terms as Prime Minister, for instance, his government was defeated in the Lords more than one hundred times. By contrast, he was not defeated in the Commons at all until the infamous 90 Day Terror Bill. Furthermore, Blair's consistent defeats in the Lords must surely stand as evidence against the charge that is consistently levelled at the post-1999 House that it is simply packed with cronies of the party leaders. Had this allegation any substance, we would not have expected Tony Blair's master barrister, Lord Irvine, to have been a vocal opponent of 42-day detention, for instance, a clause that was removed from the eventual 2006 Act owing to the stiff opposition of the Lords.

It is also difficult to escape the conclusion that replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber would be positively harmful to British democracy. When the lower House of Commons is increasingly dominated by identikit career politicians, it is more important than ever that the Lords be drawn from a more diverse background. By the same token, the 'part-time' Lords that are much maligned in the Press can bring invaluable experience from outside the bubble of a professionalised politics. This experience, and the corresponding expertise of the Lords appointed under the current regime, would surely be lost if we moved to an elected second chamber. Even if we restricted members of an elected second chamber to one term, moreover, it is still difficult to dismiss the concern that members of the second chamber would simply seek office in the House of Commons afterwards, necessitating that such members are loyal to the party line, and likely careerists. By contrast, the lifetime tenure of the current unelected Lords not only renders such political ambitions untenable, but moreover has a liberating effect in that there is minimal incentive to vote with the party line since one's career in the Lords does not depend on the whim of the government of the day.

Space precludes further and detailed analysis of the many issues that are thrown up by the idea of an elected second chamber, issues which are nonetheless often inadequately considered when we discuss Lords reform, with arguments against reform routinely dismissed under a tide of 'election propter se'. Nor are we routinely pitched any solution to any problems with the Lords other than to abolish it, as if the abolition of the Lords would usher in an era of whiter-than-white politics. But we all know it won't; the continued scandalising of our lower house is proof enough. What we need to remember is that the House of Lords is far bigger than Lord Sewell, and that's precisely why calls to abolish it based purely on Sewell's actions - without actually considering what this entails - must be resisted.