Nick Clegg and David Cameron have spent July into August having a set piece row over the reform of the House of Lords. Clegg is supporting reform, Cameron's MPs it seems entrenched privilege. But this is a row engineered to allow each leader to be seen sticking up for 'their' side in the Coalition on a matter of principle. It is not a political row that is at all important to the vast majority of people in Britain. They should get on with more important matters like getting the economy moving and the vast number of unemployed people back to or into work.
The Liberal Party started reform of the House of Lords in 1911, the Labour Party continued in 1949, Conservative led in 1958,* and Labour new in 1999. These were important reforms to democratise our Parliament and remove hereditary privilege from real power. Labour should have finished the job in but its removal of nearly all hereditary peers appeared to me to be to appease its core supporters rather than part of systematic reform. It was a big improvement though.** The issue is not important at the present time and looks as if the political classes are again out of touch with the public. Yes, Nick, the Government can deal with more than one issue at a time, but you should stick to ones that are more important.
I wrote the piece below in July 2011, an unpublished letter to Liberator magazine.
Claire Tyler's article 'Off with their robes' in Liberator 347, August 2011, puts the arguments on the other side. http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=228904187
An elected second chamber: backward quality of legislation.
It is very rare that I disagree with Commentary in Liberator. In relation to the House of Lords reform though there is sloppy thinking on the part of many Liberals. In fact it is the same Liberal / Democrat tendency to be anti-private school as some kind of class based article of faith without either evidence or particular application of principle. Commentary suggests that it is a principle that a second chamber must be elected. Liberal Democrat policy has moved towards this over several elections without explaining any of the constitutional problems about the legitimacy struggle between two elected chambers. It seems you will simply have two classes of Parliamentarian, but unlike the devolved assemblies where they sit in the same chamber they will sit in different chambers and 'the second' will soon claim to be legitimate. And who will sit in it? Regional lists for European elections or Labour Party shortlists rigged for women have increased the number of female candidates; the former have led to more nutters from the fringe being elected, but otherwise we have the same career politicians and will do so in an elected second chamber.
The idea of a chamber that represents a variety of expertise is dismissed by Commentary offhand. The idea that a chamber might genuinely reflect the regions of the UK, rather than just career politicians, is not evident in Liberal Democrat thinking from Paddy Ashdown downwards. The idea that the Prime Minister or the elected Government might actually appoint people based on their public life, their philanthropy, their public service, their ability, is unthinkable – destroyed by the media and police hysteria in the politically motivated media driven 'cash for honours' 'scandal'. Hysteria encouraged by the Tories and Lib Dems that has contributed to the bad name given to philanthropy by the rich. An elected second chamber is now a received Lib Dem party totem but assuming a revising chamber must be fully elected is based on a very limited view of democracy. The idea needs considerably more thought through as to what it would do in practice and who would actually sit in it.
* Life peers were introduced after a Bill in the House of Lords itself by future Conservative Prime Minister, Alexander Douglas-Home (Lord Home) in 1958. The Parliament website records that a further earlier reform attempt by Dick Crossman for Harold Wilson's Labour Government in 1969 failed due to a backbench revolt.
** Commentary in the Encyclopaedia Britannia 2006 notes "was seen as a prelude to wider reform.".