Don't Elect the House of Lords
To see both side of this argument and both sets of comments on one page, click here
Gavin Ayling believes that we should elect the House of Lords. I don't and I'll explain why ...
The House of Commons is elected. To be elected to the House of Commons, you have to stand for election, publish a manifesto and win more votes than your opponents. This, for me, is where my opposition to an elected upper house lies and can be summed up in two words - Career Politicians.
Career politicians are in the job because they want to be, they have ambition. They have chosen a career path that involves them securing and using political power. They will do whatever it takes (usually within reason) to ensure that they get elected and stay elected. If that means abandoning one or more of their principles then more often than not they will make that sacrifice.
With the exception of a few independents, career politicians rely on their party to get them a seat and fund their campaign. In order to be chosen to represent their party in an election they must comply with party policy. In order to keep their seat they must continue to comply with party policy. When Traitor Blair first stood for election he stood on an anti-European manifesto and lost. Next time round he won and has since professed to be a committed European "always have been, always will be". Being pro-European is part of being Labour and even the Prime Minister, the leader of this country, has sold out on his principles to curry favour with the party.
Anyway, this is in danger of getting slightly off topic.
The House of Lords, prior to the election of the Liberal government at the turn of the last century, was entirely hereditary with the exception of Lords Spiritual that represented (and still do) the Church of England. Nobody in the House of Lords was elected, they were all there by virtue of birth and they had the authority to veto legislation coming from the Commons.
The Liberal government tried to pass a budget in 1910 that included a land tax that would have been especially detrimental to landowners. The Lords opposed the budget and the Liberal government conceived the Parliament Bill which would establish the ultimate supremacy of the Commons over the Lords. The Lords opposed the Bill until King George threatened to create 250 new Liberal peers to dilute the Conservative majority in the upper house. The Lords conceded and the bill was passed into law.
The Parliament Act of 1911 and the subsequent revision of 1949 conspired to allow the Commons to disregard the opinion of the Lords if they opposed bills proposed in the House of Commons.
The Parliament Act of 1911 was infrequently used but its most significant use was to pass the Parliament Act of 1949. The Lords, mindful that the Commons were giving themselves yet more power and removing more opposition, opposed the revised version of the Parliament Act. The Labour government of the day, under Clement Atlee, followed the example set by the Liberal government in 1911 and used king for political gain.
The 1911 Parliament Act specified that the Lords would have to oppose a bill over three sessions of parliament before the Parliament Act could be used to force the bill into law. The Labour government had the king engineer a short session of parliament so that the clause would be artifically met and they could use the Parliament Act to force through the revised Parliament Act giving themselves more power.
The 1949 Parliament Act was also used infrequently until the current Labour government came to power since when it has been used more times than every other previous government combined to over-rule the will of the upper house.
The problem here is with the desire for power which career politicians naturally crave. It was a Liberal government consisting of career politicians that first nutured their overseers in 1911 and a Labour government of career politicians in 1949 that further removed the checks and balances to their power.
Lord Acton said "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." He said this 24 years before the 1911 Parliament Act came into being, I wonder if he had a vision of the future?
Ok, that's the history lesson over and done with.
The most important thing to remember about hereditary peers is that they sat in the upper house by virtue of birth. Their political affiliation was irrelevant. It was quite conceivable to have a Labour peer in the House of Lords that opposed policies of the Labour government despite being a member of that party. This could rarely happen in the Commons and certainly for no longer than the time of the next election when they would be replaced with a party faithful candidate.
There is, of course an issue of accountability with hereditary peers. Who keep an eye on them? Who can oppose them if they do something that isn't considered to be right? Well, without an impartial (as impartial as it can be) upper house, who will keep an eye on the Commons? The electorate? Sadly, most people would vote for the same party if they fielded a goldfish as their candidate so as bizarre as it sounds, the elctorate cannot be relied upon to protect their own interests!
A key part of the appeal of hereditary peers for me is the fact that they are more likely to do what is "right" than a career politician. A career politician will do what they think their constituents think is "right" or what their party tells them is "right". If something is "right" for the country but wrong for their party and/or political future they are unlikely to make that decision. A hereditary peer will still be in a job whether they are popular or not.
Since the current Labour government "reformed" the House of Lords and did away with most of the hereditary peers, they have appointed themselves a majority in the upper house. If the Lords were to be elected, it is simply not imaginable that the people would elect opposing parties to each house. The dominant party in the Commons would be the dominant party in the Lords so where is the opposition and oversight that is required?
Effective oversight of the Commons requires impartiality of the Lords. The only way to ensure that the make-up of the Lords is random enough to make this conceivable is to have hereditary peers.
Finally, I have a proposal that will resolve the issue of hereditary Lords over-ruling the Commons and the requirement for laws to be passed without the consent of the Lords. The answer, I feel, lies not in handicapping the upper house but in arbitration. I would like to see the Parliament Act further amended to replace the clause that allows the Commons to pass a law without consent of the Lords after it has been delayed for three sessions of parliament with a clause that provides for a binding referendum, thus allowing the people to decide on matters that both houses cannot agree on.
Apologies for the scrappy nature of this post but it was a bit rushed.