Let knowledge, not politics, rule the Lords

by Jonathan Roberts

For a hundred years discussion of the reform of the House of Lords has provided intrigue, gossip and occasional melodrama.  The outrage at new proposals coming from the government backbenches rightly highlights how ‘out of touch’ this diversion from more pressing matters is (like, you know, the economy), but the depth of feeling some Parliamentarians have gives an indication as to why meaningful reform has never happened.

The most significant improvement in modern times came early in the Labour Government with the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers.  Even this change, which was so obviously appropriate, caused Tony Blair a huge headache.  To impose genuinely radical reform will result in something closer to a debilitating migraine.

It is easy to forget that the current make up of the House of Lords was specifically argued against in the Parliament Act itself – where it is described that the current regime should be only a temporary measure until peer elections were fought.  Bearing in mind that income tax, introduced by William Pitt the Younger, was supposed to be a temporary measure, one could be left with the impression that there is nothing more permanent in government than a system originally labelled as ‘temporary’.

But the parties should not race towards House of Lords elections.  The UK is not suffering from an absence of democracy – quite the opposite, with parish, district and county elections every four years, European and parliamentary every five.  Soon we will be adding mayoral and police elections to the mix and I have a sneaking suspicion American-style school boards won’t be far behind.  This voting business is really rather regular – and with turnouts being as dire as they are, one has to question whether the public really is crying out for yet another dreary Thursday morning trip to the village hall.

The case for some kind of Lords reform, however, is overwhelming.  Britain finds itself in the esteemed company of Burkino Faso and Afghanistan as the only countries where the upper house is larger than the lower.  Our 800 Peers come at a price – some £108,000 each – and political consensus seems to be that 800 is just too big a number.

But before we march headfirst into a Cromwellian bonfire of the peers, first we need to discuss what it is that we want from a new House of Lords; only then can we build an upper chamber suitable to meet the needs of the country.

The House of Lords is there, principally, to scrutinise the work of Government.  It can propose changes, forcefully if it desires, but has limited powers in forcing the House of Commons to change its mind.  So if we accept that scrutiny is its key purpose, membership of the House of Lords should be reserved for those best placed to provide it.

In Britain, we have world-leading businessmen, economists, educators, scientists, artists, healthcare professionals and defence experts.  These are people who entered the lower ranks of their profession and, through their own commitment and dedication, got to the top.  Surely these are the people best placed to provide scrutiny of government’s work.  If government introduces a policy to encourage job creation, surely giving a say to those who have spent their lives creating jobs could be useful?  If government is reforming the NHS or our schools, surely giving a say to people who have spent their lives teaching and healing is appropriate?  Government consulting with experts is helpful, but Lords reform should be about taking experts out of the consultation process, and into the heart of the legislative process.  By only allowing those with a proven track record of delivering for Britain into the Lords, then it is Britain that will benefit.

The left often has difficulties with recognising the value of expertise, perhaps out of some unfounded fear that it is a secret plot to promote elitism.  But expertise and success is the consequence of aspiration, and it is something to be respected.  We can’t go on believing that having ‘values’ is an adequate alternative to actually knowing what you’re talking about.   The truth about meritocracy is that expertise is gained through hard work and dogged determination, something with which the left can well identify.   We should want meritocracy, not the current cronyism, to fill the red benches. But meritocracy does not always need democratic consent, and elections may not provide the pragmatic legitimacy we seek.

Elections to the House of Lords will invariably lead to a purely political chamber, and I do not believe the public wants more party politics, they would probably prefer less of it.  It is action and sound policy they crave – and as even the humblest student of American politics will tell you, the fight between two deeply political houses of Congress invariably results in very little getting done.

The House of Lords is now essentially a retirement home for ex-MPs.  As one friend put to me this week, ‘ex-MPs know how the system works and understand politics’ – yes they do, and that’s the whole problem.  I don’t want Lords who know about politics, I want Lords who know about business, enterprise, job-creation and public service through the kind of expertise only a long and esteemed career can provide.  Labour’s recent fetish for youth has resulted in an absence of, and almost disrespect of real senior-level experience and the wealth of knowledge that comes with it.  Creating a new set of elections for the political class could risk replicating, not curing the problems of the divisive Commons.

So instead, let’s have a House of Lords, limited to 200 apolitical, whip-free crossbenchers made up of our most accomplished, knowledgeable experts from all walks of life – then we can have an upper chamber that does what it’s meant to – scrutinise the work of Government and improve our country through knowledge, not party politics.

Jonathan Roberts was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Thirsk and Malton at the last election

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9 Responses to “Let knowledge, not politics, rule the Lords”

  1. Dan McCurry says:

    I agree with this article. The last thing we want is to politicise the house of lords. All that does is cause people to stab each other in the back in their desire to rise up the greasy pole. We end up with the wrong types. We should stick to appointed experts, perhaps with lower numbers.

  2. A Williams says:

    The problem with appointing “experts”, or anyone else really, is who does the appointing. It will be practically impossible for those doing the appointing to be unbias and independant.

    It will also create a situation where those seeking appointment will resort to political manovering within their own representative bodies and trying to influence those politicians who would make the selections. I suspect it would not take long for this proposal if it were acted upon to soon be subverted and the broad range of experts you envision being reduced from many fields of knowledge to solely legal experts.

    A far better way of bringing knowledge instead of politics, as well as creating an independent and democratically representative second chamber, would be to select its membership by lot from the electoral rolls, as we have done for generations when selecting independent and representative jurors.

    This would give a whip free membership of crossbenchers with a healthy cross section of knowledge, experience and skill sets. As with the House of Commons a full civil service advisory service should be made available for technical and legal advice.

    This would mean that new legislation would be reviewed, amended, passed or rejected directly by the very people who would have to live under it.

  3. swatantra says:

    It won’t work.
    80:20 is the best solution
    Elections every 7 years for the 80
    Re selections every 7 years for the 20

  4. william says:

    1.Make ex MPs ineligible to stand for election to the Lords.2.Make it illegal for any political party to endorse or financially support a candidate standing for election to tle Lords.3.Call the Upper house something else.

  5. swatantra says:

    Call it the Senate, and get rid of Lord/Lady LaDiDa.
    In future they would be known as Senators, like in the States.
    Make sure any Nobles are exluded from standing; the only way they could is to renounce their Titles like Wedgie Benn and Alec Douglas Home did.

  6. swatantra says:

    … there would also have to be a decree issued that ‘All Life Peers be abolished’ at a stroke! What the Queen does can alwats be undone. So eg Lord Hanningfield what go back to being plain honest Paul White, and no, Lord Ashcroft you can’t have your money back for buying a peerage! As the Tories and Lib Dems would say: The moneys already been spent.
    I’m sure Prezza and Hezza and Steele would be chuffed reverting back to ordinary Misters.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    Why, when we have a large elected chamber, do we need a second chamber in any case?

    There should be much more work going on in the committees – and MP’s no longer expected to be unqualified social workers

    Together with proper devolution to English cities and regions plus Scotland, Wales and NI, a second chamber should be unnecessary

  8. swatantra says:

    You need a 2nd Chamber to keep an eye on the 1st Chamber. I wouldn’t put my money wholly on thr 1st Chambe as there are always sordid deals going on behind our backs. Thats why the composition of the 2nd Chamber is vitally important. ets have no failed or aging or spad politicians kicked up from the 1st Chamber. It has to be more independent less whipped more made up of ordinary citizens and worthies.
    For example India nominates eminent doyens to their Upper House the Raj Sabya. They’ve just nominated Sachin Tendulkar for 6 years max. They are the equivalent of Peoples Peers. I’m not suggesting we nominate Ian Botham but you get my drift.

  9. uglyfatbloke says:

    William…Good for you!
    Mike, as long as we avoid having a democratically elected lower house we need to have some means of keeping it in check…it goes agaisnt the grain to say so, but Thatcher often had to dilute her policies (thank fuck) in order to get them through the lords.
    Of course democratic reform woudl make the uppoer house redundant, but it would also prevent majority government of the traditional model. Before STV for local government in Scotland you could see this operating at its very worst in Glasgow where Labour could get 35% of the vote, 95% of the seats and 100% of the power. The result was poor governemt with wealthy crooked cronies and the odd coke-head (ooops I meant ‘having a nervous breakdown….’) finding well-paid jobs for their cousins and pals.

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