29 August 2009

Tom Harris: Right, but for the Wrong Reasons

It's not often I agree with Tom Harris, but he has, inadvertently, stumbled on a good idea for House of Lords reform, in his reaction to the idea that members of the new Lords would take a cooling-off period before being permitted to stand for the Commons. I'll come back to why I support that in a moment, but let's take things back to first principles.

What is the purpose of the House of Lords in a parliamentary system where their elected colleagues in the Commons wear the trousers?

I suppose it's intended as a revising chamber, which can and does take a longer view on the issues facing it than the Commons (whose members have no longer than five years before they have to answer to the public for their decisions) ever could and make considered opinions based on something beyond the short-term political advantage. Of course, this is undermined by the fact that a) birthright - the initial qualification for membership of the Lords - doesn't actually give you a better long-term view of anything other than Daddy's Last Will and Testament; and b) with the exception of the Cross-Benchers, the Peers are organised along Party Lines as they are in the Commons, so obviously, short-term political advantage is going to rear its ugly head at some stage.

Besides, the House of Lords is beginning to look more and more like an extension of the Commons with every year. Its judicial functions are being farmed out to the Supreme Court; the current Lord Chancellor is a Commoner, not a Peer; Bills can be and are introduced in the Lords; the Upper House is used as a source of candidates for Ministerial office and even a device to get people into Ministerial office; and in any case, a great many members of the Lords got their position having been members of the Commons - and more often than not, are there to clear the way for someone else to stand in the newly ennobled parliamentarian's constituency. One does wonder, therefore, what point there is in there being a House of Lords at all.

Yet in a way, an electoral process for the Peers could provide a new one: a check (preferably a PR one) on a Commons elected by FPTP, and one on a Government which was formed as a result of the composition of the Commons and can generally rely on it for support.

Of course, the mechanism for doing this leaves a lot to be desired. Election by thirds, for terms the length of three Parliaments is one thing, but the idea of tying it to General Elections seems utterly barmy, in that you're connecting a theoretically independent House of Lords to events in the Commons. But as well as that, imagine if this system had been in play since 1945. Peers elected then (probably 70 Labour, 57 Tories and allies, 13 Liberal, 5 others) would find themselves retiring in 1955. Peers elected in 1950 (Lab 65, Con 61, Lib 13, 1 Other) would leave office in 1959. Those elected in 1951 (Lab 68, Con 67, Lib 4, 1 Other) would go on until October 1964. So Peers elected on the same basis would last ten, nine or thirteen years depending on when they had the fortune to be elected.

So the Government propose disregarding any elections called within three years of the last one. So Peers elected in 1945 would instead last until 1959 -thirteen years. Peers elected in 1950 would last until 1964 - fourteen years. Peers elected in 1955 would leave office in 1970 -fifteen years. But if tying elections for an independent House of Lords to Commons elections seems crazy, then tying them not just to the one being held but to the one before that is just plain daft.

Better to have a fixed term - but then, if fixed terms are good for the Lords, why not for the Commons?

But let's go with the electoral timings proposed by the Government. By the time of the 1955 Lords Election, there would be 197 Labour Lords, 186 Tories, 30 Liberals and 7 Others. Unfortunately, you would also have an Anthony Eden-led Government which had come close to a majority not just of Commons seats, but of actual votes (49.7% of UK votes cast). A check on the Government is one thing. A Chamber in which a Party that nearly gets a popular majority isn't even the largest is, quite frankly, perverse.

So the timing looks dodgy, and the voting arrangements look ropey, thanks to the long terms of office.

And of course, under the Straw proposals, no Peer can seek re-election. You get your fifteen years, and that's that. But the ability to seek re-election is the best bit of the process: that's how you're accountable to your voters, as you know that a few years down the line, you have to face them again. What's the point in having the democratic process of an election if there's no procedure for voters to deliver a verdict on the people they've sent to Parliament already?

If we must have phased terms - and, for the long-term view, it's does have some merit - then it may be better to elected by halves, and have Peers serving the length of two Commons terms, and allowing them the prospect of re-election. That way, the Chamber more closely reflects current opinion, and peers are accountable to their voters for as long as they seek to continue in the job.

And that would solve the vexed question of what to do about Peers who come in mid-term, to complete someone else's spell in office. Under Straw, either they get a second bit at the cherry which their colleagues do not, or they find themselves in the job for a curtailed period of time. Neither is satisfactory, so allowing re-election would be a bonus.

It also weakens the case for recall votes, as considered in the proposals, because voters would be able to decide for themselves whether or not to keep X in office for another eight-ten year term. Recalls are a good idea, but if you're having them for the Lords, why not the Commons?

So the proposals seem half-baked, but the idea of Lords being barred from standing for the Commons is, despite Tom Harris's misgivings that the idea is merely a way of stopping Peter Mandelson from becoming Labour Leader (I suspect the Leadership Contest would do that). Firstly, if the Straw proposals did go ahead, it would stop the Commons becoming the retirement home for the Lords who had finished their stint and had nowhere to go. Secondly, as Constituency MSPs will bear witness, having someone elected on a regional, PR level who could stand in your seat having had years to build up a profile in the area is pretty un-nerving. Now, Constituency and Regional MSPs are one thing - they at least are being elected to the same body - but having people use the reformed Lords as a stepping stone to a Commons constituency is pretty pathetic. It might assert the primacy of the Commons, but frankly, you're never going to get the Lords to act as an effective check on the Commons if Party organisers can dangle the prospect of a Commons Constituency before Peers.

But then, Tom Harris's own suggestion also has merit: if using the Lords as a career stepping stone is shabby, then continuing to use it as a retirement home/dumping ground for ex-MPs, particularly those who have been encouraged to make the space for newer figures, is equally pitiful. For me, it's as bad as Cash for Honours, but it's completely permissible under the law and it's a long-standing practice: the Peerages for Constituencies Scandal. Again, it might assert the primacy of the Commons for the Lords to be full of parliamentary offcuts, but having a Second Chamber stuffed with rejects from the First isn't going to create an independent body with its own practices, just a carbon copy of the Commons with a different method of getting there. Tom Harris may have come up with the idea out of indignation at Jack Straw's proposal, but it's worth looking at.

1 comment:

Angry Steve said...

To be honest, I have no great issue with the Lords as was 10 or 15 years ago. They have done a damn good service to this country, whether the young whippersnappers in the commons like it or not.

But then, I'd very much like to see most of the commons swinging from lampposts.