House of Lords reform: the politics

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The honeymoon. Well and truly over?
Image reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

It is already looking unlikely that the House of Lords Reform Bill will be enacted – at least in the form in which it was originally introduced, and on which I posted yesterday. There are reports today – including on the BBC and Guardian websites – that, amid real tensions between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition partners, David Cameron may propose a heavily watered-down set of reforms.

A possibility suggested in the media reports is that a much smaller elected element may be introduced by ejecting the remaining 92 hereditary peers and replacing them with elected members. Most of the hereditary peers – that is, people who have inherited the right to legislate in the House of Lords – were removed via the House of Lords Act 1999, brought in by the Blair government. But 92 were left in place as a token of intent that “full reform” would be forthcoming, the Conservatives fearing that Blair would otherwise be tempted to leave things as they were: a House of Lords appointed by the Prime Minister. Of course, in the event, neither the Blair nor the Brown government enacted further reforms, and so the House of Lords has remained a largely appointed chamber.

Whatever the relative merits of appointment and election, the presence of the hereditary peers is obviously anachronistic: it smacks of a “ruling class” that has no place in a modern democracy. In fact, the retention of a small number of hereditary peers reveals one of the oddest aspects of the British constitution (which is not short of eccentricities). When one of the remaining 92 hereditary peers dies, there is, in fact, an election to decide who should replace them: but the only people entitled to stand in the election are other hereditary peers – and only such peers (or in a few cases all members of the Lords) can vote. An example, then, of the fact that “elections” and “democracy” need not be synonymous.

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