As I write, Lords are pouring into The Queen’s Robing Room to select a new member to join them for life. If that sounds like the bizarre initiation ceremony of a private members’ club, you’d be about right.
While MPs debate what ‘take back control’ really means, peers are choosing a hereditary peer for vote on our laws.
There’s other strange House of Lords news this week: after breaking convention and letting MPs have more say over the Brexit process, Speaker Bercow may be denied a traditional peerage when he stands down. To an outsider it must seem strange that a position in our legislature could be given as a reward for long service – like a gold watch at a retirement party. Many Lords do great work revising and improving our laws, but with 800 members, we already have far more members on taxpayer funded expenses than we need.
And the current ‘by-election’ for a new Lord was called following the death of Lord Skelmersdale on 31 October 2018. Eligible candidates are drawn from an exclusive Register of Hereditary Peers. Out of 198 on the list, there is only one woman (Baroness Dacre).There were 16 candidates in this by-election and 785 peers were eligible to vote – a roaring success for democracy by House of Lords standards. Yes, four by-elections have had more candidates than voters.
All this has once again shown the second chamber of our parliament to be a cosy club for the privileged few.
We’re basically alone in Europe for having a fully-unelected revising chamber. And no other country in the democratic world has a second chamber bigger than ours. Globally, only Communist China has a bigger body, and they merely meet to rubberstamp government policies. France manages on 348 members. Spain with 257. India, with over a billion people, has just 245 and Japan 242.
Attempts by the House of Lords to control their size have been, frankly, laughable. Through an unofficial ‘one in, two out’ system, the Lords hope to get to 600 members by 2032. If they succeed, they will still be the largest second chamber in the democratic world – assuming Japan doesn’t randomly appoint 560 new senators in the next few years.
So far 13 new peers were added while the nation was distracted by the Royal Wedding. These, apparently, didn’t count towards the target as they had been planned before the Lords started counting.
But this is about more than just the sheer size of the thing. After losing her seat as an MP in 2017, Nicola Blackwood joined the Lords this month so she could become a health minister.
A real problem with peers is that voters can’t kick them out – but it turns out that being rejected by the voters is no barrier to joining in the first place.
Patronage is a power that is hard to resist. If a prime minister has the power to appoint who they like for whatever reason they like, they will use that power for political gain if they have to. When everything is an unwritten convention, as Bercow may discover, they might not be worth the paper they’re not written on.
The current efforts to ‘reform’ the Lords by peers themselves will do something disastrous: they will actually increase the role of hereditary peers and bishops. With a plan based on political good will, rather than legislation, there is nothing the Lords can do to reduce their legally-capped numbers. As the size of the House of Lords declines, the 92 hereditary peers and 26 Anglican bishops will take up a growing percentage of the chamber.
So as we speak, 16 men with hereditary peerages are standing for a sham election, while nearly 800 ex-MPs, party donors, bishops and other hereditary peers will decide who gets to join their club for life. The public only get involved when we’re informed of the result this Wednesday, on a fairly obscure section of Parliament’s website.
All this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to everything that is wrong with the chamber.
We have had a century of stop-start tinkering. Enough is enough. It’s time for the public to pick who gets into the House of Lords. Let’s break open this private members’ club once and for all.
Darren Hughes is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society