Think how good the House of Lords could be

Published in The Independent (August 3rd, 2013)

There are few things British leaders love to do more than lecture the rest of the world on democracy, emboldened by their place at the helm of the self-styled mother of parliaments. But as another clutch of cronies, toadies and wealthy party donors are clad in ermine and squeezed on to the packed benches of the House of Lords, how antiquated and corrupt our system of government must appear around the globe.

The latest people given the right to lord it over the rest of the country and have an input into the laws of the land include at least five people from all three main parties who have been substantial donors. Nearly two centuries after the first Reform Act swept away rotten boroughs, it remains shamefully possible for rich people to buy themselves a place in Parliament – plus, of course, a fancy title for their business cards.

Then there are the former MPs, the failed mayoral candidates, the party apparatchiks and the partisan lobbyists – their slavish loyalty rewarded with a peerage. The latest list, announced on Thursday, is as always sprinkled with such predictable and often-dreary names. Yet as Douglas Carswell, the free-thinking Tory MP, told me, lickspittles are the last people you want to fill a chamber existing to examine the lower house’s legislation.

It is not just those scarlet robes that look Ruritanian. For every person such as paralympian Chris Holmes or race equality campaigner Doreen Lawrence deservedly elevated to the Lords, there are at least a dozen unworthy candidates handed the keys to power and influence in return for their money or monotonous support. Meanwhile, there remain 92 individuals there by dint of aristocratic birth and 26 bishops from one state-endorsed church – ridiculous relics of our nation’s feudal and God-fearing past.

It is all so unseemly, and it plays into public alienation from party politics. Yet still more and more people are pumped into the peerage, so that a body that once had barely 50 members has swollen to become the biggest second chamber in the Western world. The numbers in the Lords were slashed back to a sinister-sounding 666 in bungled reforms 14 years ago; today, they have bounced back to 838, each one permitted to claim hefty attendance allowances worth £40,000 a year courtesy of the beleaguered British taxpayer.

In recent years, prime ministers from both sides have contributed to this hyperinflation by abusing their powers of patronage. Margaret Thatcher created an average of 18 new peers a year, but Tony Blair more than doubled this to 37 a year, appointing 374 during his decade in office. David Cameron is filling the chamber still faster. When Thatcher left office after 11 years, there were seven names on her list of resignation honours; when Gordon Brown left office after a mere three, his list comprised no fewer than 32 names.

The problem is not just one of too little room on the red benches; it is that we are stuck with a system that stinks and belongs to a bygone age. It is little wonder that recent lobbying scandals have emanated often from the upper house. Yet one after another, learned reports have disappeared into the dust and attempted reforms have foundered. Under 11 years of New Labour there were four White Papers, two free votes, one Royal Commission and a joint committee of both houses. The Coalition, meanwhile, almost fell apart over its attempt to introduce electoral legitimacy to the Lords.

The failure of the Coalition’s attempt at reform last year showed that MPs in the Commons have no intention of undermining their own democratic authority. Yet for all this, the curious thing is how well the Lords works, as I glimpsed this week when giving evidence at a select committee’s inquiry into soft power and aid spending. It was chaired rather charmingly by Lord Howell, who the next day personified the idea of the bumbling peer  with his daft comment on the “desolate” North-east.

The discussion was sharp but courteous; members of the upper house are still very polite to each other. And it was good to see someone such as Lord Ramsbotham – a former general and such an impressive chief inspector of prisons – still playing a role in public life.

Although the average age of the Lords is well past retirement – at 69, some 19 years older than their counterparts in the Commons – it has a recent record of being the more progressive half of parliament, freed of the need to bow to the forces of electoral populism. Just over a decade ago, peers opposed cutting the homosexual age of consent; in June, they backed gay marriage with a bigger majority than the lower chamber. This highlights the unexpected reality of the Lords: more liberal, more urbane and more competent when it comes to scrutinising legislation.

As the party system crumbles, it becomes even more important to stop the House of Lords from becoming stuffed with all these sleazy political appointments that so demean Britain. Yet would an elected second chamber really be an improvement? Parliament needs more mavericks, more individuals and more expertise rather than more tribalism, more sycophants and more over-promoted political advisers. This is the real challenge as we seek to remake our democracy in the digital age and re-engage citizens with the political process.

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