"Decide its function, then its form": Peter Kellner on the public's lack of enthusiasm for Lords reform
This week’s debate by MPs on reform of the House of Lords has been framed as a test for the relationship between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. This is understandable. A vote against the ‘programme motion’, which would set a timetable for considering the Bill, could have huge consequences for the future of the Coalition.
However, a longer term perspective matters more. Long after the Coalition has disappeared into the history books, the consequences of what Parliament decides to do about the Lords will still be with us, and our children and grandchildren.
Reformers have two big problems. The first is that they have failed to arouse public enthusiasm for their project. YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times finds that two thirds of the electorate think either that Lords reform is not a priority (50%) or that it ‘works reasonably well and should be left alone’ (18%).
Only 20% consider that ‘reform of the House of Lords is vital: it should be a priority to change the system so that its members are elected by the public’. What about Liberal Democrat voters? Their vote share is down to just 8%. One might expect this remaining group of hard-core supporters to endorse the party leadership’s enthusiasm for reform. Not a bit of it. Just 28% of them regard it as a priority. The proportion of the British electorate who are Lib Dems who regard reform as a priority is a mere 3%.
Nor are the public eager for the Government’s proposal for a ‘mostly elected’ Lords. Less than half, 42%, back this option. A similar number, 43%, want either an appointed upper chamber (14%) or a mixture of appointed and elected peers (29%). Lib Dem voters are no exception to this division, with 47% wanting peers to be mostly elected, and 48% one of the other two options.
Those figures show where voters stand, not whether they are right. Good, confident governments regard polling numbers as a guide, not an instruction. However, times are tough. Britain has huge economic problems. Some of the key actors in our public life, including politicians, bankers and journalists, are regarded as crooks and cheats. In these circumstances, MPs should be wary of deciding that their priority is a constitutional form that leaves much of the public cold, and which does nothing to remove the failings that offend so many voters.
The reformers’ second problem concerns their failure to provide a clear answer to a simple question: what should be the purpose of the upper house? At present, its function is to scrutinise and revise proposed laws but, when push comes to shove, seldom to thwart the wishes of the elected House of Commons. That is what might be termed its generally understood purpose. In fact, it has an important delaying power. It can hold up bills it doesn’t like for a year. But, precisely because it is unelected, it rarely uses that power. It has done so just four times in the past twenty years, most recently a decade ago to delay the ban of hunting with dogs.
Now, if the Lords were mainly elected, but its formal powers were left unchanged, it would have no reason to defer to the Commons. Delays could well become commonplace. The power of the Commons would be reduced. The rest of us might cheer, but MPs would hate the idea.
So: what is the Lords for? Should it be a grown-up legislative body with the power to challenge the Commons (rather as the US Senate can challenge the decisions of the House of Representatives)? Or should it continue to be more of an advisory body, with the right to debate important issues, call ministers to account, and ask (but not require) MPs to change their minds?
If it is to be the first, then an elected upper house is surely vital. But if it is to be the second, then the case for election is far less obvious. Indeed, if it to be a lame and toothless tiger, able to sit and roar but not to chase and bite, then why should the best and the brightest party people stand for election? Instead of being a vibrant advertisement for a lively democracy, the upper house would risk becoming a rest home for second-rate party hacks. (Some would say it’s that already. If so, isn’t this something that reform should rectify?)
The debate about the fundamental purpose of the Lords is the one that should be happening but isn’t. A clear consensus about function should precede any decision about form. Two weeks ago I argued that Lords reform is probably doomed this time round. Given the lack of public enthusiasm and the failure of the Government to tell us what it believes the basic function of a reformed Lords to be, few people will mourn the Bill’s likely death.