Speech on House of Lords reform - 26 June 2012
Here is a copy of the speech I gave today to the Electoral Reform Society on House of Lords Reform.
On Wednesday 27th April 1994 I was driving into the House of Commons with tears streaming down my face as I listened to Archbishop Desmond Tutu interviewed live on the radio literally singing with joy after he had finally exercised the right to vote in a free election for the first time in his life after 63 years of waiting.
Only recently we have all been watching with baited breath as the Arab spring topples demagogues and dictators in the Middle East and we are all hoping that Burma may finally be on the long road to democratic freedom after so many years of vicious repression.
But I can’t have been the only one who was struck by the incongruity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s inspiring address to us last Thursday being responded to by the Lords speaker. Who with all due respect to her as an individual, went on to extol the virtues of democracy whilst presiding over the entirely unelected House of Lords. It really is about time that this affront to democratic practice in the UK was finally dealt with.
The Crucial Role of Politics
That is my starting point for considering what will be the big constitutional question of this Parliamentary session, House of Lords reform.
I do not believe that Lords reform alone will solve the big democratic challenge that we face here in the UK. That is the disengagement, apathy and cynicism which is such a noticeable feature in our society at the moment. Ours is not the only advanced democracy where this is an issue but I believe that we must tackle this anti politics mood.
I believe passionately that politics can transform lives and rebuild our society. But the corrosive cynicism of the anti politics age we live in is hard to overcome. However we cannot achieve progressive advances without daring to dream that it is possible to transform the way things are done or to change the existing power structure. We must acknowledge that a deep respect for democratic politics is the key to any legitimate transformation in society and any empowering of people who are seeking a greater voice and a greater influence in the decisions which affect their everyday lives.
As Aung San Suu Kyi said so well last Thursday:
“Politics does not exist above us or below us but as an essential part of our lives”
House of Lords reform
I am a whole-hearted supporter of a wholly elected second chamber. For the simple reason that in twenty first century Britain the House of Lords as currently constituted represents power without accountability. In a democracy it simply should not be possible to legislate without having first being elected.
This simple affront to democratic principle must be dealt with and there is no time like the present.
Every argument I have heard for the status quo runs up against the fact that the British people are shut out of the House of Lords. And each large new influx of coalition peers makes the ever more bloated House even more unsustainable. It is now 800 in size and rising. This is especially true as the size of the Commons is being reduced to its lowest level since the Great Reform Act of 1832 despite the UK’s growing population. This is being done ostensibly to cut the cost of politics but it is really about power. The reality is there is an increase in the power of the unelected and the unaccountable coalition supporters at the expense of the elected. The Lords as it is now constituted is plainly absurd and unsustainable.
That does not mean the Opposition should just meekly sign up to whatever Conservative Liberal Democrat compromise the coalition has stitched together in the secrecy of the Cabinet room.
The outstanding Lords reform issues
I was elected on a manifesto promising a referendum on House of Lords reform. This is why the Prime Minister’s argument that a referendum is not needed because reform featured in all three party election manifestos is so disingenuous. I have yet to hear a convincing argument why the British people should be deprived of a say over such an important constitutional reform as this one. If you can have referendums on elected mayors and devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the UK Parliamentary electoral system and every tiny adjustment to the European Treaties, then it does not strike me as immediately obvious why there should not be a referendum on Lords reform.
It is also clear to us in the Labour Party that it is important to safeguard the supremacy of the Commons after any reform. Unless the issue of the powers and privileges of the two Houses in relation to each other and the conventions covering the way they interact are dealt with explicitly, there remains a strong possibility of Parliamentary gridlock post reform. A mere statement about the supremacy of the Commons in Clause 2 will not be sufficient for this purpose. Even as we speak the Salisbury conventions are crumbling away before our eyes and on previous experience we can expect that they will be much more disregarded when there is a Labour majority in the Commons than when there is a Conservative one. So this issue has to be effectively dealt with in the primary legislation. We cannot behave as if the Parliament Acts never existed.
Then there is the question of the electoral system to be used for the elections to the new second chamber which I am certain will be the subject of much learned debate here.
The Government seems to prefer regional elections on an STV system whereas Labour favours an open list PR approach. Whilst you may all be swooning at the thought of dusting down the d’hont formulae I’m not certain its obscurantist intricacies are the key to reviving interest in electoral politics. We will explore the chances of change during the passage of the Bill.
It goes without saying that we favour a chamber which is wholly elected rather than the 80% currently on offer from the Government. And that of course raises the question of the Bishops an their presence in the House which ought to be debated too.
I might just say that election is an absolute key democratic principle to be gained by reform but what kind of mandate does a fifteen year term really give to a new member of the second chamber? How legitimate is it when it extends so far past the fixed five year terms in the Commons?
I am also surprised by the government’s timetable for Lords reform. Given that over the last 100 years the only reform to the House or Lords was the last Labour government removal of hereditary peers (Which the Conservatives voted against) you might ask what the harm is in waiting another 12 years for the reforms to be fully implemented? But if the government’s timetable is adhered to, a child beginning their primary school education at 5 this year when they first vote at 18, will be voting in the first election when there is a wholly reformed House of Lords. This reform is currently scheduled to take almost as long as High Speed two to become a reality. If a democratic Lords is a good thing in 2025 might it not be a good thing a little sooner than that?
Lords reform is not enough
For me, Lords reform is long long overdue but, as I said in my opening remarks I do not believe that it will address the political crisis we face. I would not underplay the profound impact that big constitutional change has on the way we do government.
The last Labour government’s decision to devolve power to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and directly elected mayors, most notably in London, has had a profound, and beneficial impact, on the way we do governance in the UK.
Nor do I think moving to the alternative vote in the Commons, which I voted for and still support, would necessarily resolve the challenge our democratic system faces. The crisis is not about process it is about outcome. Turnout in elections across the United Kingdom does not seem to indicate that one particular voting system is more successful than any other at getting people to vote. The malaise is more profound.
Voter turnout has sunk depressingly low. The proportion of young people voting has also been in decline. The challenge we face is how to deal with this.
But are people today less political? We make a mistake to think participation in elections is a measure of how much people care about politics. People do care. They simply don’t think the political process, if it impinges on their consciousness at all, offers them a solution.
So While Lords reform is unfinished business and business we must get on with, it is only a small part of the answer to the more profound problems we face.
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