Is the House of Lords Dead?

By James Ware
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
1999, Vol. 1998/1999 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

With my visit last May to the Palace of Westminster with my Boroughs Youth Council to ‘grill’ or be brainwashed (depending on your degree of cynicism) by John McDonnell MP, The Hillingdon Youth Council saw the ‘Green’ corridor’s of power round the Commons.

Yet the ‘Red’ corridor’s surrounding our second chamber, the House of Lords were not on the tour. Given ‘New’ Labour’s landslide number of 419 MPs (out of 659 =2/3) on 43% of votes cast nationwide, all of which committed in their manifesto to reforming the second chamber by removing the voting rights of hereditary peers as a first step. The lack of knowledge on what could be the most far reaching reform of our domestic legislative process is disturbing, if not downright deceptive against the people. In this article 1 seek to explain what the House of Lords is and does before analysing the ideas for reform.

Believe it or not the Lords has about 1,200 members. Most of them (approximately 700 -800) are hereditary. This means that their place is passed down from one generation to the eldest child of the next. The rest are life peers. Aside from the 26 Bishops and law lords the rest are awarded their peerages for achievements and expertise such as former Premiers, Cabinet Ministers and speakers of the Commons or in other spheres such as Sue Ryder or Professor Winston (of I.V.F. and B.B.C. 1 Human Body fame). It is ironic that in an age when all discriminatory ‘Isms’, including ageism, are being combated, we might be about to see the demise of this, the “… Madame Tussauds of British Politics” (Tony Benn nee Viscount Stansgate). Yet when all of the members are over thirty and two thirds of those who can vote, nicknamed the ‘backwoodsmen’ are continually Conservative, regardless of the political mood of the nation, popular opinion is against the chamber. Yet in its wholesale dismissal of the Lords as unrepresentative of them and backing Labour in a 1788 French style, the much vaunted public opinion may be failing to recognise that the Lords are defenders of our rights and the conventions by which we are governed.

The argument in defence of the status quo has two main points:

  1. The house is useful in representing interests, bringing learned expertise and information into proposed laws (or bills) and in relieving the pressure on the lower chamber.
  2. There is no clear opinion as to what the new second chamber will be like, and Labour’s interim is liable to extreme loyalty to the government of the day, at the expense of the general public, Cranbourne’s deal notwithstanding.

Taking the first point, I have seen the Lords at work on another occasion thanks to the kindness of someone I interviewed for an ‘A’ level assignment. As Walter Bagehot (an eminent nineteenth century political commentator) noted, since the Commons procedures are not perfect and are overworked, a second chamber that does provide considered scrutiny of legislation clause by clause, and to a lesser extent the government of the day is highly useful. We actually need a second chamber to consider some legislation before the Commons, so that everything is completed within the constraints of Parliaments sittings. The Lords provides a mix of expertise especially amongst the ‘lifers’ which is ‘Best of British’ and can create or increase debate in the media e.g. over tuition fees or on constitutional affairs. All this is done while still strictly subordinate to the elected Commons, who can pass its legislation regardless, after a years delay.

Hence critics of reform say “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” The answer is because the people perceive something very wrong with the majority being hereditary, with Baroness Jay’s speech against their privileges (15/10/98, House Of Lords) being favourably received from Independent to Sun alike. Yet a second chamber whose composition is solely dependent on appointment, be it based upon Prime Ministerial, Committee, or jury system risks a body that is truly neutered to the government of the day. Similarly a totally elected house could fundamentally shift the balance of power, remember that in America it is the Senate which is the more powerful. The Tory Broadsheet proposal of 250 elected, 250 appointed would not be much better, as the curtailment of the second chambers breadth of collective knowledge and expertise would damage legislative debate, and reduce the opportunity for interest groups to have their say, without using the lobbyists of this world.

Hence though the Lords is as good as dead in its present form thanks to Labours intentions, the media and genuine public opinion in this less deferential society; the present suggestions for its replacements are equally flawed. With this in mind I have a suggestion, a fully elected second chamber mandated by a written constitution solely to revise legislation and hold the government of the day to account; with none of its members being ministers. To allow interest groups open involvement and the quality of debate to remain high, life peers would continue to have speaking but not voting rights. Hence Professor Winston could still propose informed amendments to Health legislation, and those mandated by the people through the ballot box of the S.T.V. system to amend the bills would have the decision to accept or reject.

The S.T.V. system for electing the voting component of multimember, preferential voting produces proportionality, local accountability (albeit over a wider area). This allows not only constituents to chose who to approach but ‘peers’ can specialise so that each of those elected within the area takes different matters forward for their constituents and can more effectively amend and scrutinise legislation. Plus it facilitates all political parties in influencing legislation, if not initiating it from Whitehall. With a minimum age encouraging older people to serve with their expertise while the F.P.T.P. legislature acted decisively in the Commons, a genuine balance between executive forming Commons and scrutinising Senate could emerge.

Additionally, UK members of the European Parliament should have attendance rights so as to be scrutinised for their actions in Brussels and to explain the implications of European directives that are at present passed ‘on the nod’ at Westminster, much to the annoyance of fishermen, farmers, and art dealers alike. Sometimes with scrutiny being even less than that (see political decisions on the granting of subsidies). From this the British public would see this as beneficial and highly educational (us ruling Europe to the extent that we are a component of it), increasing support for realism over socialist and now defeated Kohlite fantasies of continual co-operation between distinct but linked states.

Yet such a blatantly utopian solution is unlikely to occur given ministers desires to maximise their power and minimise their scrutiny (watch Prime Ministers Questions, Wednesday 3 P.M./ B.B.C.2 to see the most toadying examples, though the past lot of backbenchers were just as bad.). It will take people young and old to learn and understand the issues on this and any other, matter and then lobby their MP and elected representatives whose election in which they voted at whatever level, whether for them or against. Will you do so whenever an issue of concern to all of you arises? You’ll have to personally before anything really changes.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Since Lord Rosebery’s well-known speech there has been much debate about changes in the composition of the House of Lords. Major reforms included the Life Peerages Act 1958 and later the House of Lords Act 1999, which reduced the hereditary members to 92.[2] Nevertheless, constitutional experts such as Rodney Brazier argue that the House of Lords continues to be “unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable.”[3] The Coalition Government... MORE»
Tony Blair has long been committed to the abolition of hereditary peers; the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto promised that this would happen. Labour knew that reform would be difficult and would upset many people of influence, so they took their time and waited for the right moment. When that painful moment came, the abolition of hereditary peers was revolution by stealth.There was no fanfare, and no death knell after the debate was over. Even though... MORE»
Political polarization in the United States has been one of the main issues at the forefront of American politics. Studies show that political parties have in fact become more divided ideologically than ever, and more Americans... MORE»
New Labour’ has committed itself to giving each division of the United Kingdom a parliament or assembly of its own. Already we have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly (just because Wales is a principality does it not deserve a parliament too?), as well as a nascent Ulster Assembly, unless the peace talks fail. So far England has been left out of this scramble for autonomy which has rather unfairly left it for now still under the control... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Political Science

2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
This interdisciplinary paper investigates the shortfalls and obstacles to success currently facing the climate movement, examining issues represented by the disconnect between policy and electoral politics, the hypocrisy and blatant indifference... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 06
Two of the most prevalent protest movements in recent history were the Black Lives Matter and the #StopTheSteal movements. While there are many differences between the two, one of the most prevalent is their use of violence. Whereas the BLM movement... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 05
Strong linkages between autocrats and the military are often seen as a necessary condition for authoritarian regime survival in the face of uprising. The Arab Spring of 2011 supports this contention: the armed forces in Libya and Syria suppressed... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
During the summer of 2020, two fatal shootings occurred following Black Lives Matter protests. The first event involved Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the second Michael Reinoehl in Portland, Oregon. Two shootings, each committed by... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
In popular international relations (IR) theory, knowledge production is often dismissed as an objective process between the researcher and the empirical world. This article rejects this notion and contends that the process of knowledge production... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
This article explores the political relationship between nation-building, ethnicity, and democracy in the context of Ethiopia. It traces Ethiopia's poltical history, explores the consequential role ethnicity has played in the formation of the modern... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
The study examines the degree to which Xi Jinping has brought about a strategic shift to the Chinese outward investment pattern and how this may present significant political leverage and military advantages for China in the Indian Ocean Region (... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


Presentation Tips 101 (Video)
"Should I Go to Graduate School?"
How to Read for Grad School