One of the unenviable features of Liberalism has always been its sense of moral righteousness. It’s the view that we’re right and, even if you don’t realise it, what we’re doing is for your benefit and if that means acting anti-democratically that’s fine…a modern version of Rousseau’s ‘being forced to be free’. This has been evident in the proposed bill on House of Lords reform and in the lamentably weak speech Nick Clegg, an increasingly bankrupt political leader if ever there was one, yesterday proposing the legislation. For a committed democrat to turn round and argue that, because all the parties agree about the need for reform, there’s no need for a referendum on a major issue of constitutional reform, is evidence of just how bankrupt he is. Yes the parties do agree about the need for reform but they don’t agree about what that reform should be. His defence of no-referendum was so weak as to be laughable but then he’s already lost the AV referendum and would probably lose one on the House of Lords so why bother!!! Well, precisely because he did lose. The people may not always be right when it comes to referendums but that does not mean they shouldn’t be asked.
This matters because the proposed bill is a bad piece of legislation and should be opposed. It is poorly drafted, imprecise, ambiguous and creates more problems than it resolves. It replaces the patronage of the Prime Minister with the patronage of party, fails to define the relationship between Commons and Lords, seeks to introduce a system of PR based on the list system (one of the least democratic versions of PR: you vote for the party and we choose who sits) and is a recipe for constitutional conflict. It also could well be a very expensive reform, something unwelcome in a period of austerity and for that reason alone logic should have dictated a delay until the economic crisis is resolved. Constitutional reform, whatever its justification, is a luxury when there are more pressing issues.
The parliamentary supremacy of the House of Commons has, since the Parliament Act of 1911, been based on the fact that the Commons is democratically elected while the Lords consisted of hereditaries and latterly appointees who have no democratic mandate. The proposed reform will establish elected members in both houses with equally democratic mandates. In fact, you could argue that the Lords elected under a proportional system have a greater claim to represent the people than the Commons only elected under first-past-the-post. So why should an elected Lords accept the supremacy of an elected Commons? In additional, though elected through party patronage, because they cannot be re-elected after their 15 year terms, why should the Lords subject themselves to party discipline? In fact, they could well be even more independent than the existing members (a good thing) but this would undoubtedly create constitutional conflict between the two houses both of which could claim a democratic mandate for their actions. Prime ministerial patronage will still exist as PMs can appoint ministers to the Lords who would then remain for 15 years even after they lost their ministerial portfolios. So a bloated Lords with its increasing membership of party hacks!
The problem with the proposed reform is that it fails to reform the relationship between the two houses. The Commons can no longer use the democratic mandate argument to justify forcing legislation through the Lords but this appears not to have figured in the thinking behind the legislation. Yes constitutional crisis may well result on the development of constitutional conventions governing the relationship between the two houses as in the past, but the function of previous constitutional reform has been to enable either the government to act or the people to be represented. This bill does neither and consequently fails what should always be the basis of constitutional change….clarity.