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Why Lords Reform Won't Happen

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The House of Lords defies every democratic principle. But does the public really want reform? Peter Kellner suggests not

Were we starting from scratch – in the wake, say, of civil war or revolution – the issue would barely qualify for the label ‘controversy’. Of course every legislator would be elected. Anybody who proposed an upper house containing appointees and a smattering of men whose great, great, great grandfathers had been royal courtiers would be dismissed out of hand.

The trouble is that we are not starting from scratch. It is our fortune (not many would say misfortune) that we have not suffered a revolution, civil war or invasion for more than 300 years. Our constitutional cobwebs have not been cleared away. And we still have a House of Lords that defies every democratic principle.

So how does the public view the Government’s plans, unveiled this week, to reform the Lords? YouGov’s poll for the Sun suggests three big truths:

  1. As many as 76% of us think peers should be mostly or wholly elected; and by two-to-one we want the 21 seats reserved for senior bishops to be abolished.
  2. However, only 18% people regard Lords reform as an urgent matter. Politicians who are thought to divert attention from more pressing problems may find themselves in trouble with the electorate.
  3. However, if reform is to happen, 55% want the ultimate decision to be taken by a referendum; just 26% think change should be enacted without a public vote. And support for a referendum runs at around two-to-one among supporters of all three main parties.

Now, constitutional reform is seldom a popular priority. If every government were to be daft enough to run the country according to polling results, such reform would never happen. Most people would say, all or almost all of the time, that jobs, prices, crime, health and education are far more pressing. Sometimes politicians need to lead, and demonstrate confidence in their own judgement. After all, as the famous question puts it, “if not now, when?”

Were reform being enacted as an all-party venture, in a happy economic climate, I doubt whether voters would be too bothered. They would regard change as odd but probably not scandalous. However, neither condition now obtains: reform is controversial, and the economic outlook is bleak. Today’s prudent answer to ‘if not know, when?’ is: ‘when prosperity returns and there is cross-party agreement’.

As things stand, it seems likely that one of two things will now happen. Either the bill to reform the Lords will be still-born, or the price that will be paid for keeping it alive will be a commitment to hold a referendum, after the bill becomes law but before any of our current peers are pensioned off.

If the bill is withdrawn, then we can all forget about reform for a few more years.

But if there is to be a referendum, who will win?

On the face of it, there seems to be a big majority for reform. However, if any reader is rash enough to bet on the outcome, my advice would be to put their money on victory for the status quo. As I have argued before, referendums on contentious topics tend to make voters increasingly nervous as polling day approaches. The vague grass-is-greener enthusiasm for change when the decision is some months away tends to be trumped by a keep-a-hold-of-nurse caution when change is imminent.

In part this reflects normal human psychology. But an additional reason often comes into play. When reform is a distant prospect, most people pay little attention to the details. Whatever the precise polling question, people interpret the choice as what we have now versus something better. But as campaigning hots up, the specific nature of the proposed reform come in for scrutiny. This was one of the reasons why last year’s campaign for electoral reform failed so badly: the ‘No’ campaign successfully mocked the Alternative Vote system and persuaded millions of voters not to risk abandoning First Past the Post.

With Lords reform, there are three separate reasons why many people who like the idea of an elected upper house will end up rejecting the Government’s proposal.

The first is that, even now, only a minority, 41%, think the quality of membership of the Lords will rise if peers were elected. True, just 25% think the quality would fall.

But during a referendum campaign, the public is likely to become aware of some of our most distinguished peers; and the ‘No’ campaign will surely play on the public’s contempt for politicians by arguing that it would be mad to stuff Parliament with second-rate party hacks who haven’t been able to get a seat in the more-important House of Commons. Unfair? Possibly: but political battlefields down the years have been filled with the corpses of those who relied on fairness to win the day.

Secondly, just 32% like the notion of a single 15-year fixed term on the grounds that this will give peers more freedom to decide what is right. Rather more, 47% say this is a bad idea ‘because voters should have the right to decide whether to keep or throw out elected parliamentarians every few years’. I would expect this issue to provoke growing numbers of voters to say, ‘I want reform, but not THIS reform’.

Third, some opponents of Lords reform say the cost of politics would rise. Peers receive less in allowances than MPs receive in salaries and expenses – and whereas MPs are given money to hire staff and run an office, peers have only a tiny allowance for secretarial support. If elected members of the upper house are not to be second-class parliamentarians, they too will need salaries and staff. (David Cameron is reported today to say elected peers will not have salaries. I doubt whether this position can be sustained for long.) Now, in the scheme of things, the overall costs will be derisory. But, in tough economic times, any increase in costs will be deeply unpopular.

All in all, I can’t see reform happening. If Parliament doesn’t kill it, the people will.

Democratic principles will continued to be offended, but not many of us will really care.

See the survey details and full results here