Yes, Lords Reform is Needed - But so is Caution

Our democracy, like every political system across the world, needs reform and will always need reform but before we throw the bathwater out, let's make doubly sure we've removed the baby first.

I read Scottish Labour leadership contender Kezia Dugdale's opinion piece for The Guardian with interest. It was remarkable for two reasons that I could discern. Firstly, a Scottish Labour higher-up managed to make it through an argument without using the word "astonished" - I searched the page just to be sure. Secondly, someone in Scottish Labour appears to have finally figured out how the coffee machine works because they, in the person of Ms Dugdale, appear to be finally waking up. It is a bold, provocative piece and - despite everything I'm about to say about it - is well worth a read.

The thrust of her piece was to call for the House of Lords to be abolished and for its - presumably revamped - functions to be given to an elected second chamber. The twist of lime in the Cuba Libre on this occasion is a rather gutsy and innovative call for the second chamber (whatever it may be called - something tedious like "British Senate" or hilarious like "The House formally known as the Lords") to be based in Glasgow. This addendum to the proposal from Ms Dugdale has caused more uproar than what she is actually calling for; especially in the topsy-turvy world of social media although the reasons are fairly predictable.

Personally, I find nothing remarkable about this at all. In an age when more and more business is done over the phone, over the Wi-Fi or in the Cloud, the actual physical location of business matters less and less. As for the necessary, face-to-face stuff, Glasgow is as relevant a place as any across the UK. It's bustling, vibrant and extremely political so it fits the bill. As an Edinburgh lad, I'm glad I don't have to live there but I would, if asked, be ok with inflicting it on our politicians. (I kid of course... Glasgow is genuinely lovely).

There seems to be more-or-less universal agreement with the basic sentiment at play in Ms Dugdale's article. The fact that the House of Lords needs substantive reform and will get it seems settled - it's now a matter of 'how?' and 'when?' rather than 'if?' This is the sort of issue that gets people - especially on the left - all hopped-up on Bolshevik-lite fervour but I urge caution, especially in adopting Ms Dugdale's explicit notion of full on abolition and replacement.

First, we need to be realistic about what the Lords do. It's wonderful - I'm occasionally guilty of it too - to get passionate and riled up about something, to fling words like "deference" and "outrage" about... but it is also pointless. We must remember that the institutional experience gathered among the Peers allows them to function, as David Seymor argues, as the most effective branch of our political system. The Lords get a lot done on a daily basis and their revising and scrutinising functions are beyond priceless. When we see pictures of Lord Sewel's little get-togethers it is very easy to lose this valuable perspective. We would have a better debate if we remembered that effective government is the rule whereas the improprieties are very much the exception.

Additionally, let's be realistic about what a second elected chamber would be like - including the potential disadvantages. While the advantage of an elected chamber would be that it would be subject to public opinion; the dirty little secret of politics is that, sometimes, public opinion needs to be taken under advisement or at least mediated by professional, educated and experienced opinion.

If this were not the case, if we did not need a certain amount of technocracy to stabilise our democracy then why would we accept that it is better for the Cabinet Secretary, all the Permanent Secretaries and the entire civil service to be unelected? Surely being appointed based on talent and skill, rather than at the ballot box, is undemocratic for such powerful positions? If you also believe that police chiefs, civil service higher-ups and other highly-skilled jobs ought to be elected positions then fine, but you are under an obligation to say so to make your case consistent. An incomplete debate is worse than no debate at all.

If I could write down one word on a slip of paper and pass it to Kezia Dugdale it would be "careful". Our constitution is a very delicate, intricate and nuanced mechanism that has been built over hundreds of years to be the imperfect mash-up it is now. My overriding concern is that in pushing forward too much hard-headed reform too quickly we risk accidentally losing the very thing that people like Kezia and I - yes, while ordinarily being political opposites, we appeared on a joint panel in 2014 - campaigned to save; our genuine sense of Britishness. The source of such Britishness can only be shared experience and that means the slowly evolving institutions of government. I also fear that, in reforming too quickly, we would lose the major benefits of the Lords to which I alluded earlier. I accept that nowhere else in the world has anything like the House of Lords, but since when did uniqueness and heritage become bad things?

In closing I'd just like to restate - because I'm sure I'll get some very 'interesting' correspondence if I don't - that we do need constitutional reform in Britain. Our democracy is overly centralised (in my view, more in power terms than in geographical terms) and needs many tweaks and cautious revisions; certainly more cautious than the detail of what Ms Dugdale proposes. My critics might point out that I do not offer a solution of my own - this much is true - but I feel that raising my concerns in this regard is doing my bit; in the same way as every car needs a handbrake, so does every political issue.

Our democracy, like every political system across the world, needs reform and will always need reform but before we throw the bathwater out, let's make doubly sure we've removed the baby first.


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