One-off “Lords reform” is bad news

I never like to hear politicians talking about “Lords Reform”. This is not because it is a bad idea; it’s probably a very good idea. It’s because it is invariably done just before elections in a populist nod to potential coalition partners, with no real time taken to reflect on Tony Blair’s big mistake – namely not recognising that devolution, electoral system change and Lords reform are all part of the same thing.

By failing to recognise that devolution, the electoral system and the upper house are all the same basic constitutional issue, “New Labour” succeeded merely in nearly ending the Union itself, entrenching the current electoral system and making the Lords even less independent while no more democratic. All this happened while still more power was concentrated at the centre in each country of the UK, faith in politicians reached an all-time lows and electoral turnout decreased further. As disasters go, this has been a spectacular one.

Therefore I get nervous when I hear about “more powers to Scotland”, “English votes on English issues” or “reform of the Lords” – even though I agree with all of them! The problem is they are being handled for political convenience, not constitutional significance. They actually need to be handled together and with consensus, not separately for the sake of partisan side deals.

What is required is a detailed proposal which includes:

  • equal and significant financial and revenue raising powers to each of the four countries of the UK, to be voted on only by legislators from that country;
  • the separation of UK Departments of State from English Home Departments, and of UK-wide legislation from English-only for vote by appropriate legislation;
  • appointments to the upper house (the Lords) to ensure that its breakdown is directly proportional to votes cast in the most recent UK General Election and, additionally, to those cast in the most recent Devolved Legislature Elections; and
  • “English votes on English issues” but with potential for referral to the upper house for debate among all members where there are implications for the wider UK.

This is relatively tame compared to proposals which many (indeed I) would really wish to see implemented – but I suggest they offer the best chance of consensus.

But therein lies the problem. English politics doesn’t do consensus. That’s one big reason the electorate is so fed up!

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2 thoughts on “One-off “Lords reform” is bad news

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    In my view any system of appointments to a national legislature is an extremely bad idea and likely to perpetuate the bad behaviour displayed by both political parties (who are essentially selling titles and seats) and Lords, against whom allegations of financial (Laird) and sexual (Rennard) impropriety have been made without seeming to have much effect. The quickest and neatest thing to do would be to get rid of the twenty-million-shilling freeholders of the House of Lords and use the empty chamber for an English Parliament. However, as you say, that’s unlikely.

    While the most stable solution to EVEL from a Unionist perspective would be devolution to the English regions, and failing that to an English Parliament, the most plausible and elegant one, given the lack of interest in devolution in England, might be something akin to the NI Assembly’s “petition of concern”, i.e. Scots MPs would retain the right to vote and speak on everything, but English MPs would have the right to vote on matters separately if they felt that a division should have gone differently. Given the very low number of votes between 1997 and today where Scots MPs made a difference (21 out of several thousand), it wouldn’t arise very often. Thus Labour could keep their Scots MPs, and the Conservatives could have a form of EVEL; the House of Lords could simply be abolished, saving us all some money and making the UK less of a laughing stock.

    On those very few occasions when England did not vote for the same Government as the UK, there would be the usual options of coalition, minority Government, or fresh elections. If the reform were coupled with proportional representation, then simply forming a larger coalition would presumably be the easiest, as well as the most democratic, way out.

    However, that only deals with the democracy deficit for England; not for Scotland.

  2. andyboal says:

    See also the DUP plan to abolish the smallest NI department DEL in isolation instead of assessing all eleven departments to see how functions and responsibilities can be distributed more effectively and sensibly between all of them. It’s the same idea of doing one thing in isolation for the wrong reason instead of looking at the big picture.

    Of course, the DEL minister being an Alliance MLA wouldn’t be at all relevant.

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