Why on earth are we even talking about Lords reform?

by Peter Watt

I have been building up to write this for days now.  Because I have been getting angrier and angrier the more I thought about it – House of Lords reform.

What is it that politicians don’t understand here?  Voters hardly hold their political masters in the highest regard.  Not to put too fine a point on it, they don’t like politicians and certainly do not value them.  It may or may not be unfair but they think that politicians are self-serving and live in their own rarefied world.

What voters certainly do not see is a political system that provides a solution to the problems that they experience in their day-to-day lives.  In fact many voters are angry and probably blame politicians for many of the world’s ills.  To be fair, from the voters point of view there is much to feel angry about.  The expenses scandal; an economic crisis that the political class seems immune from; tax cuts for their mates, tax rises for everyone else and ever increasing prices.

And the response of our politicians?  That we need even more politicians!

Apparently we need to expend huge amounts of political energy and effort passing legislation that will create 450 new professional politicians.  Presumably all of whom will need paying, will need staff, offices and expenses.  Who will need to be elected and who will all need to spend their time justifying their existence.

Even better we will also need to have this genius proposal agreed by those fans of politicians, the voters, in a referendum!  At a time when we are busy cutting services for the most needy as budgets are squeezed we should spend even more money on even more politicians?  At a time when across the country, families’ budgets are under pressure, do we really need even more elections to choose even more career politicians?  Unemployment is rising but our politicians think that creating even more politicians is the answer!

You couldn’t make it up.

And to be clear, the facts here do not matter.  It is the impression that does.  So the fact that the number of elected members would be less than the number of current Lords is irrelevant.

The rational case for greater democratic accountability is somewhat lost in the ocean of contempt for politicians.  The ending of privilege and patronage will come a long way second to the fact that there will be even more jobs for the career political boys and girls.  The voters might not like the ermine clad hordes in the other chamber but they will absolutely hate the alternative.

There may well be a strong case for House of Lords reform but now it is the last thing that should be being considered.  Our politicians should be spending, and be seen to be spending, all of their time focused on trying to sort out the problems facing families in this country.

The economy is in recession again and jobs are being shed.  Food and utility bills are rising and families are suffering.  Now, with trust so low, the political class needs to knuckle down and show people that they can actually do something useful, can actually benefit people other than people like themselves.

But I fear that we will not see any of that.  Instead we will see the government ripping itself apart over the issue and Labour agreeing with the need for reform.

There will be briefings and counter briefings, threats of rebellion and hints of the premature collapse of the government.  There will be tactical decisions over whether or not to hold a referendum, what system should be used for the election and what powers the second chamber should have.

It is the stuff of fantasy for political obsessives.  It has overtones of class struggle; eminent political professors will wax lyrical over the merits of one system over another.

There will be articles and posts on the dangers of an overly powerful reforming chamber and the dangers of legislative deadlock.   Those seeking election will sniff out an opportunity and begin trying to second guess the selection procedures.  And polls will be watched to see who will benefit from the rows.

And because this will all entertain and engage the Westminster elites, the Westminster elites will just assume that everyone else is just as fascinated.

But that won’t be the case.  Millions of voters will have their worst prejudices about politics confirmed.  A debate supposedly about strengthening the institutions of our democracy will instead weaken them by increasing cynicism.   What is it that politicians don’t get?  It’s not complicated; voters generally hold politicians in contempt and when politicians spend time and energy endlessly discussing the creation of even more politicians then surprise, surprise, voters will not be impressed.

Rant over.  I feel better now!

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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16 Responses to “Why on earth are we even talking about Lords reform?”

  1. Simon Christopher-Chambers says:

    You don’t have to be a political genius to work out that this is a conceived distraction orchestrated by Cameron & Clegg. Lib Dems get reform back in the agenda & Cameron goes along with it in hope that it detracts from numerous failures of his Govt. Unfortunate thing is we (Labour) are in danger of falling for it. Westminster bubble at its most anal

  2. martin sewell says:

    Peter is absolutely right.

    If there was nothing else to do we could tease out the best way to reform without putting grit in the delicate mechanism which is the Constitution.

    It is so easy to ” call for” more elections in the naive belief that because democracy in the principal Legislative Chamber is essential and good (which it is) then introducing democracy into the Upper Chamber is uncontravertially good.

    Not only does this build into the structure constant tension/ hostility between the two bodies-each claiming superior mandate, but it will place the resolution in whose hands? The unelected Judges?

    The starting point should not be some Adrian Mole style reform ( ” It’s more democratic innit?”) First we need to ask this.

    In simple strictly FUNCTIONAL terms, when has the Lords posed a problem to our Governance?

    You only need one democratic lock on our legislative processes and that is -and should be exercised by by the Commons.

    Two democratic locks will create not improvement but either contest or gridlock.

    Organising this outcome is not in anyone’s interests at this time whether you are from the Left or the Right.

  3. Richard says:

    “450 new professional politicians. Presumably all of whom will need paying, will need staff, offices and expenses.”

    As already happens under the current system except there is nearlyy twice as many of them being paid and running staff and offices.

  4. Richard says:

    Spot the naked self-interest of Peter Watt who’s got a future eye on a place in the Snores.

  5. Nick says:

    Rant over?

    What are you going to do about it?

    They are fraudsters. Hundreds of them. I put in an FOI request. Several hundred have claimed for more days than they have used their passes to gain access to Westminster, one of the most secure buildings in the UK.

    Now their response is to get the person responsible for handing out the money, to sign state secret certificates making what he is doing a state secret.

  6. Nick says:

    You only need one democratic lock on our legislative processes and that is -and should be exercised by by the Commons.

    Two democratic locks will create not improvement but either contest or gridlock.


    I disagree. However, I agree that the Lords isn’t and shouldn’t be that lock.

    The lock should be the electorate. The voter should have the vote on issues.

  7. Peter Watt says:

    Richard, if I’m offered a place I’ll take it!! Not sure it’s likely though…

  8. John says:

    Sorry Peter, but I cannot agree.

    Just because the general public are not talking about an issue does not mean that it a govoernment should do nothing. (If a government agenda is going to be wholly determined by the what the public wants then that is a recipe for chaos).

    And to argue that “what voters certainly do not see is a political system that provides a solution to the problems that they experience in their day-to-day lives” and then argue you should not do anything about reforming this system to make it more demcoratic and more accountable is just nonsense.

  9. resistor says:

    I see Peter Watt prefer privilege and patronage to democracy. How very New Labour.

  10. martin sewell says:

    Nick, Would you not also agree that howsoever we have our second chamber members inducted, we must not give them leverage to be a challenge to the Commons?

    One democratic lock is essential – two is not an indulgence – its a recipe for disaster!

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    I can’t say I’m an enthusiast. But then, I’ve always supported proper devolution to the regions and cities, and a unicameral parliament

  12. paul barker says:

    I am very dissapointed, I had thought that you might be learning something from the mess of the last government. From thinking that more democracy is a luxury how far is it to the next step – the yearning for a strong man to sort things out ?

  13. Caracatus says:

    Hang on – if the voters don’t like party hacks and career politicians, they don’t have to vote for them. All that is needed is a House of Lords elected by single transferable vote with 450 members elected all out every 5 years. Your probelm with that is what exactly ?

  14. “Apparently we need to expend huge amounts of political energy and effort passing legislation that will create 450 new professional politicians”

    What do you think the Lords is stuffed with at the moment?
    Unemployable, unelectable and has beens.

    Moreover there are 786 of them all running up healthy expenses and as the political solution to voting empass by any particular government is simply to create more lords this number will only increase exponentially under the current system.

    Cutting numbers to 450 might actually save us some money – let alone introduce some democracy.

  15. uglyfatbloke says:

    I’m all in favour of scrapping the Lords so long as we can have democratic reform and a prioper bill of rights. If the Tories had got 2% more votes they would have had complete unbridled power for 5 years. Anyone really want that?
    A commons elected by PR every 4 years or 5 years, but absolutely on a fixed term basis….and term limits as well.

  16. Colin Hall says:

    Maybe I’m a little off-beat when it comes to my idea’s regarding the future of the House of Lords, but why is an elected house such a great idea. Surely we would just end up with the same old partisan boredom that the house of commons provides us with, just rubber stamping the bills without question of the party line.

    I would suggest that instead of an elected second house we should appoint short term lords from the general public, randomly chosen from maybe a two year staged lottery, offering all of the breadth of experience that that would bring. Imagine, the house of commons held to account by a random cross-section of the community, no parties, no whips … no corruption 😉

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