In light of the findings of last week’s Sunday Times the extent of corruption within the House of Lords has become increasingly apparent, and the pressure continues to mount in favour of constitutional change.
The leader of the Lords, Baroness Royall and her fellow traditionalists continue to argue that the House of Lord’s is wiser and more experienced than the Commons and thus has distinctive merits as an independent revising chamber. Indeed, much has been written in defence of the Lords’ independence in recent times. Most notably their rejection of the 42 days detention of terrorism suspects without charge dealt a significant blow to New Labour’s continued onslaught against the nation’s civil liberties. Despite this the very nature of the House of Lords remains an embarrassing anachronism as peers remain unelectable and unaccountable; the very existence of an unelected legislature in a democracy is simply an absurdity.
On purely principled grounds there is undoubtedly a strong case for reform. In reality however, it seems particularly unlikely that wide-reaching reforms will be enacted by either of the country’s major parties. Indeed, those pushing for radical reform will certainly not find the blueprints offered by the incumbent Labour government particularly compelling. Jack Straw’s proposal for a half-elected senate in which members are elected via party lists, a system that, like the commons, will simply allow for one party to dominate and will certainly limit independence from the executive. But frankly, what does one expect? As Nick Cohen highlighted in his Observer column on Sunday, politicians do not enact constitutional change aiming to achieve scrupulous democracy; they enact change when it is in their own interests.
The second practical obstacle to principled reform is more fundamental; the British context of reform has always been one of gradual evolution as distinct from the revolutionary path. Furthermore, in modern times the original idealistic conception of representative democracy has become particularly discredited. A case in point is the obvious pitfalls of the US senate in which, influenced by the lure of money, elected representatives can often pay very little attention to the interests of the people they claim to represent. In this vein, many stress that while undemocratic, the Lord’s is equally – if not more – efficient than comparable democratic second chambers. In addition many have suggested in that corruption is limited due to its independent nature.
Despite this, the findings of ‘Erminegate’ have severely damaged such claims and in the aftermath of such scandals a clear window of opportunity has arisen in which meaningful reforms could be enacted. However, even in the face of impending electoral doom, New Labour and principle remain mutually exclusive concepts. Consequently real democratic reform of the House of Lord’s remains an unlikely prospect.