Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Elected lords, weak government

Put yourself in the position of one of the 150 elected Lords that will emerge in 2015 if the government gets its way.

Elected for a 15-year term. Representing an area up to eight times larger than an MP’s constituency. Backed by the votes of more people than ever voted for an MP. Are you going to say: I may have had more votes than an MP, I may represent an area larger than an MP, and I may have been elected for a longer term than an MP, but of course I accept that under the British constitution I should have less power than an MP.

I give it about five minutes before the first elected Lord says, ‘erm, hang on a moment – surely I’m more legitimate than those pesky MPs. I won’t be pushed around by them.’

And because elected Lords will never have to face another election, how conscientiously do you really think they are going to represent the views of their party’s members, and how much notice do you think they will take of their whips?

No, here’s what will happen. Filled with their sense of importance, they will squabble like mad with MPs and – because they will be elected by PR (and a bizarre version of PR at that), and no party will have a working majority – the business of governing the country will grind to a halt.

Parliament will be all check and no balance.

And then five years later, another 150 elected Lords will come on the scene. They too will think they’re better and more legitimate than MPs. And on top of that they will think they are better and more legitimate than the 150 who were elected 5 years ago.

Oh, and then five years after that, there’ll be another 150. And the result will be that nothing gets done.

Look, let’s be honest about this. Constitutional reform is the refuge of the loser.  None of the main parties won the last election, so we’re all looking to fix the next one. It’s displacement and denial.

You fail to appeal to the population, so how do you respond? With well-considered, mainstream policies? With strong new leaders who have the ability to communicate that they get people’s concerns? Or do you kid yourself that it was all the fault of ‘the system’, and if only we had a better ‘system’ everything would have been OK?

Well, if AV was 2011’s way for the parties to avoid tackling their deeper problems, it looks like House of Lords reform could be 2012’s. Let’s be clear, an elected Lords is daft.

Sure, parliamentary gridlock sounds appealing when you’ve forgotten what it’s like to win. And it means you can avoid for a little bit longer having to think about what you need to do to become electable. But the public wants to elect a government to get on with governing.

If we have to have a second chamber, one with only a marginal claim to legitimacy is best. Yes, it will revise and assist, but as nobody is elected it won’t dare to overturn or obstruct. At the moment, PR in the Lords looks like it’s the price Cameron is prepared to pay (or at least pretend to pay) in exchange for Lib Dems helping him redraw parliamentary boundaries so that there are more Tory MPs.

And Labour should have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Constitutional reform is a minefield and completely unnecessary. People don’t talk about it in the pub or even at our advice surgeries.

Instead of concentrating on how to fix ‘the system’, we should get on with the more important job of detoxifying people’s perceptions of the party, and offering a popular alternative to this government of out-of-touch bunglers.

And that’s why I’ll be voting against this new breed of jumped-up elected ‘senators’, and against the weak governments that will inevitably follow.


Siobhain McDonagh is MP for Mitcham and Morden


Photo: UK Parliament

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Siobhain McDonagh MP

is MP for Mitcham and Morden


  • There needs to be reform. Fair enough that we are being offered isn’t perfect, but surely Labour should try to improve the current bill, rather than opposing it outright. Sorry Siobhain, but I disagree.

  • I cannot accept that the current system for creating peers is fair or reasonable. We get people made into peers to do a job then don’t do it, others make promises like paying their tax as a UK citizen then renege on it. Most are political placements to vote in favour of the their party’s stance on an issue. I’m heartily sick of it. Let’s elect the second chamber and let’s also do away with the term Lords

  • Totally agree, peerages should be gone, no more silly lords or dames, this house has to be elected it has to be for five years like MP’s and they should have the same coders, I’m sick to death of seeing the Lords like some kindergarten for the elderly who sit and sleep for £315 a day

  • I agree with you on AV and though the current proposals are quite bad, I do not think it is at all right for Labour to the current ‘status quo’. I think what should happen is indirectly-elected peers who are elected through a list system but political parties will be required to select peers from different ways of life and with different professions. There should be no ministers in the Lords and no whips in the Lords, so that we can get rid of careerists and ensure that our peers are impartial but that should be put before the people in a referendum which is reasonable. Sorry, Siobhan but I think you are wrong.

  • Siobhai’n is completely right, and not a single comment has even attempted to address her compelling prediction of how elected ‘Peers’ would behave. One feeble attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Webbs’ semi-corporatist Constitution for a Socialist Britain (ca 1920) includes the following:

    a list system but political parties will be required to select peers from different ways of life and with different professions.

    How enforced? To take but one sector, will medics be elected in a different ‘house’ than surgeons? anaesthetists (if there are any left)? physio’s? matrons? sisters? staff nurses? orderlies? porters?
    and will the balance of numbers – or power – or prestige – between these occupations never change? as it does, how will representation be adjusted? by whom?
    the refuge of the politically impotent and defeatist? yes – but on the above showing, also the asylum for the finally deranged…..

  • The answer to all this, is to enshrine in Law, that elected Lords are subservient to the Commons and that they have no Veto in legislation, only the power to amend.

  • If Siobahn is against democratic reform, can I suggest she joins the only party opposing substantive reform of the Lords. Just because the proposal is crap, does not mean that the whole subject of Lords reform should be thrown out, on the basis they might disagree with the elected government. Then propose the abolition of the Lords entirely, not this ridiculous undemocratic status quo.

    I’m not going to try and address any alternatives here, many though they are. It seems that more than a few like the status quo, as it offers them a post ministerial/MP sinecure – or even worse, a ministerial post with no democratic accountability, sadly.

  • And it also won’t remove the issue of ‘being appointed’, in fact it may make it worse – those on the candidate lists will still be chosen by political leaders / parties, but they won’t be vetted by the Lords Appointment Committee. Complete waste of time.

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