On Monday the House of Lords voted to delay for three years the tax credit cuts passed three times by the House of Commons. This was a huge breach of parliamentary protocol. The Lords’ vote not only defied the settlement of the Parliament Act of 1911 after the Lords had vetoed Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”, but in fact undermined the Commons Privilege- that states financial and taxation matters belong to the Commons- that dates back to the 1670s. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP and historian, has argued the tradition goes back even farther- to the 15th century. While Lord Heseltine ranks slightly below Ted Heath and Neville Chamberlain for my least all time favourite Conservative, he is correct when he said that the Lords vote creates a constitutional crisis (of sorts). So what can be done about these pesky Lords to restore normalcy to the British constitutional settlement? My answer: a reformed meritocratic House of Lords.
So what do I mean by a “meritocratic” House of Lords? Don’t worry reader enthralled in the nuances of the British constitutional settlement, that is coming. But before I propose my solution, I think we should make clear what we want in an ideal of Lords.
First of all, we want the House of Commons to be supreme to the House of Lords. The House of Commons is elected by the people to form a government and implement a legislative agenda for the United Kingdom. To me, the constitutional settlement of the supremacy of the electorate expressed in the House of Commons makes an elected Lords (a Senate) completely undesirable. If a British Senate was to be created, that would give this Senate a mandate to start making and blocking laws and legislation. It would blur the lines of what the two houses functions are, and could potentially create gridlock and undermine the government. In the United States, the Senate used to be appointed (by the state legislators) and the House and Senate carried out very distinct roles. Once the Senate became elected, the traditional roles virtually disappeared, to the point where the Senate crafts financial legislation all the time. In order to avoid regular parliamentary power struggles and the blurring of roles, the Lords needs to stay unelected.
Conversely though, while we don’t want an elected Lords defying Commons, we do want the will of the electorate to be respected by the Lords. Observing the American constitutional dystopia, you don’t want a situation where, like with American unelected judges, the unelected and unaccontable Lords simply throw out the bills they disagree with. An “activist” House of Lords that does not respect the will of the people elected through the House of Commons is just as bad, if not worse than, a gridlock creating Senate would be. Thus, ideally you want the makeup of the Lords to be one that not only respects its traditional review and revise law role, but also one that is mindful of what the electorate wanted when it elected the MPs in the House of Commons.
Lastly, and probably most importantly however, you want a House of Lords that is competent and bring expertise to their jobs. Not to pick on Baroness Zahida Parveen Manzoor, but what on earth is this person doing in the House of Lords- let alone tabling a motion to kill off a financial measure passed three times by the House of Commons? As pointed out by Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail, before becoming a peer, Baroness Manzoor was “deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, chair of Bradford Health Authority and, later, Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales. She was also regional director for a somewhat opaque lobbying organisation, the Common Purpose Charitable Trust.” Baroness Manzoor has no private sector experience and has never been elected to public office. Yet, the Baroness of Knightsbridge proposed killing off the principle of “no taxation without representation” from a party of 8 elected MPs. Even James II would probably thought her too much of over-lording aristocrat. Now, of course I am not saying she should be stripped of her baronetcy or anything, she was lawfully appointed. But her and many other Liberal Democrat and Labour counterparts have turned the Lords from a chamber of wise contemplation to a political revenge chamber filled with party hacks. (Conservatives also have their fair share of hacks too). Any Lords reform solution must be to be to minimise the impact of potential Baroness Zahidas and get the most competent people voting on bills.
Therefore with parliamentary tradition, and democratic and competency considerations in mind, I propose a system where the peers choose from the best among themselves to sit in Parliament. This system would be three fold: 1. The party that forms the government gets to have the largest numbers of peers with voting rights sitting in the House of Lords in line with a proportionate number to the party’s Commons MPs. 2. Each political party’s peers choose among themselves which peers they want to vote and speak for them in the House of Lords over the course of a government and 3. Peers who are not chosen to vote among the House of Lords will enjoy non-voting status similar to hereditary peers who have not been chosen to vote in the Lords. Each of the three proposals is explained a little more in depth below.
- What I mean by proposal number 1 is that over each government each party gets a set amount of voting peers in Lords to more accurately reflect the will of the electorate. Therefore, the general election will affect how Lords sit. Currently, there are 249 Conservative peers, 212 Labour peers and 112 Liberal Democrat peers. Currently, Labour and the Liberal Democrats outnumber the Conservatives 324-249 despite the Conservatives forming a government! Under my plan, the amount of partisan Lords who had voting rights would depend on the outcome of the election. For instance, currently there are 331 Conservatives, 232 Labour MPs, and 8 Liberal Democrats. Labour’s total number of MPs amount to 70% of the Tories total. Therefore, to make the Lords proportional to the Commons, Labour would only be allowed sit 174 voting peers. For the Liberal Democrats, their 8 MPs only constitute 2% of the Conservative MPS in Commons. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats would only be allowed to sit 2% of the Tories total number of peers, meaning they could sit 6 peers. (As a side note, the Democrat Unionist would be entitled to two additional peers because they have 4 peers and 8 MPs currently). Thus, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be forced to choose their most able and competent peers to be voting peers. For Crossbench peers, I would reduce their number from 176 to 92; 92 being the number of hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords because of the House of Lords Act of 1999. (More on hereditary peers in the next section). Thus, under my proposal, the current House of Lords would have 249 Conservatives, 174 Labour, 6 Liberal Democrats, 6 Democratic Unionists, no SNP because they refuse to sit in the Lords, 92 Cross-Benchers and 26 Bishops. I would keep the Cross-Benchers and Bishops because they are (supposedly) non-partisan and bring wisdom and experience to the chamber. The number of partisan peers would be set for the term of each government and would change after the result of each general election.
- Secondly, each party’s Lords will choose among themselves which peers they want to have voting rights in the House of Lords. I would abolish the distinction between life and hereditary peers, because under this new system the distinction made in the 1999 House of Lords act to reduce the hereditary peers number is unnecessary. Under this new system, it would be up to each party’s peers, life and hereditary- Conservative, Labour, and Liberal and to the Cross-Benchers, to choose who among them they think would make the best decisions in Lords. For the Conservatives, people like Viscount Ridley (a hereditary peer), Baroness Brady, and the former chancellors Tebbit and Lawson seem like obvious choices. Lords Ridley, Brady, Tebbit and Lawson are examples of people who come from esteemed intellectual, business, and government experience backgrounds that would prove invaluable to the reviewing, revising and perfecting of legislation. For Labour and the Lib Dems, if they want to abolish hereditary peers once and for all from their side of the chamber, and elevate people based purely off checking politically correct boxes, this would be an opportunity for them to do so in their own parties. Point is, this system allows each party’s lords to choose who among their peers who is truly the best among them. Any vacancies in the Lords would also be filled by the party’s peers.
- Finally, those peers not chosen by their parliamentary colleagues to vote in Lords, or who decide to not be party or cross-bench affiliated, will still keep their title and other “perks.” Those peers chosen to vote will receive a salary so that they can better financially afford to participate in the parliamentary process. This new system creates two classes of Lords: the active members of the House of Lords and the non-active peers. This helps solve the issue of peers who are basically retired and non-participating without stripping them of their title. It also allows an “out” for those peers which are not politically inclined.
The idea behind this two-tiered system of voting and non-voting Lords is to set up a system that more accurately reflects the will of the people, creates stability in Lords, and avoids the prospect of Prime Ministers having to appoint party hacks and generally unqualified people to “pack” the Lords to get their way. A good House of Lords is stable, contemplative, and meritocratic. Hopefully a proposal like this one will be adopted to avoid the prospect of having another constitutional crisis ever happening again.