The Contemporary House of Lords

The Contemporary House of Lords by Meg Russell

Nick Clegg should have read this book before embarking on his ill-fated 2012 proposals. Indeed, it should be on David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s reading list, and on those of serious commentators and students of parliament as well as the new batch of peers. (Just as Charles II created peers to boost his support in parliament, so has Cameron this summer.)

This readable book describes and analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the Lords within our bicameral system. Accepting such a bicameral system (on which the author draws in international experience), the author concentrates on the Lords’ actual role, considering whether a second chamber is to cause the government pause for thought (a role abrogated by the executive-dominated Commons), to be an anti-majoritarian player, or to provide alternative representation to the premier chamber. She does this by reviewing the Lords’ history, particularly since the 1999 removal of half its membership which ‘transformed the Lords from a Chamber of privilege to one predominately based on merit, and from a body dominated by the Conservative party into one where no party has a majority’ – though she underestimates the coalition’s political majority in the House.

Even since 1999, a more legitimate House has grown more confident in challenging a government. An elected second chamber would do so in spades with, as yet, no plans for overcoming resulting gridlock. Furthermore, as Siéyès wrote in 1789, ‘if a second chamber dissents from the first, it is mischievous; if it agrees, it is superfluous’.

If constitutionalists favour a ‘balance of power’ role for the Lords, then how it works now, and how it could be reformed, are key democratic issues. Yet Clegg’s partisan, ill-considered bill ignored the respective powers of the two Houses, the effect of non-renewable 15-year terms – including the freedom to cross the floor – and its function, whether it is to consider, evaluate, ponder or take an independent view. If the latter, then its no-overall-control composition (which the government has sought to end) would be undermined by normal elections, as whips replaced persuasion and argument.

A major debate is therefore about whether the Lords should equal the first chamber or be complementary to it (which implies different roles, powers and composition). Agreement about the Lords’ function should therefore precede composition – the crucial step omitted by Clegg.

Meg Russell stresses the ‘significant role’ of the Lords today, with its near equal-sized Conservative, Labour and crossbench membership. Indeed, whether in opposition or in government, it is the Lib Dems who have been decisive in many votes, with the Lib Dems causing 419 of the House’s 458 defeats of the Labour government, while now overwhelmingly supporting the Conservative government with their 60-odd votes.

A crucial characteristic of Lords is its non-party crossbench, who – at least partially – represent civil society, a bit like the EU’s Economic and Social Committee. Crossbenchers bring different life experiences, contacts, backgrounds and assumptions to those of party nominees; we should think twice before expelling them. The second chamber might also bring in members from the regions and nations, providing a wider pool to ensure checks and balances, and to represent, or protect, minorities.

Russell’s discussion of future reform is grounded on analysis of bicameralism, of the Lords’ history, role, behaviours and expectations – and of the art of the possible. I particularly endorse what she calls a ‘small change’: to ‘ditch’ the red robes for the Queen’s speech (and, I hope, the bizarre sight of the wives of peers, with absolutely no democratic role, appearing in full evening gowns and tiaras, in the grossly overcrowded chamber). But her key point is that, to be effective, a second chamber must have three qualities: a distinct composition from the first chamber; adequate formal powers to make that chamber think again; and sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of the public to exercise its powers.

This excellent book, by its evidence and analysis, justifies her three demands. The question remains: are we politicians up to agreeing a system to meet them?

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The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived
Meg Russell
OUP | £52pp | £50

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Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC

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  • Chris

    Although Dr Russell’s book is (like all her other output)
    undoubtedly excellent, I must quibble with Baroness Hayter’s attempt to score political points with this review by claiming that there
    are ‘no plans for overcoming [the] resulting gridlock’ that would undoubtedly
    (in her mind) occur if the House of Lords was actually granted some democratic
    legitimacy. This old chestnut – much bandied about by opponents of Lord’s
    reform – completely ignores the existence of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and
    1949, which solves the problem of stubborn peers now, and would continue to do
    so in any reformed chamber.

    Lords reform needs sensible, informed debate and the work of Dr Russell does much to advance out understanding the second chamber. It is disappointing that Baroness Hayter used a review of such a valuable contribution to spread misinformation.