Don’t reform the House of Lords – get rid of it

The upper chamber continues to be an affront to democracy.

The House of Lords seems to be in a perpetual state of half-baked reform. Nearly two decades on from New Labour turfing out hereditary peers, only to replace them with politically appointed life peers, politicos continue to talk of further modernising the upper chamber, mooting the possibility of rendering it elected, and talking angstily of its bloatedness and its costliness.

Some lords now even contribute to this chorus of complaint themselves, none more so than its current chair and lord speaker, Norman Fowler, an unremarkable member of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory ministries of the 1980s. At the end of 2017, a report commissioned by Fowler recommended a two-out, one-in policy for peers to reduce the sheer size of the upper chamber. And this week Fowler has seen fit to call again for a ‘slimmed-down’ house, and a more rigorous appointment process to avoid giving peerages to, in his words, ‘passengers’ who contribute little to the upper house.

As well he might. The House of Lords is, absurdly, the world’s second largest legislature, after the People’s Republic of China. Moreover, it is brimful not with razor-sharp minds, but with the corpulent, the crapulent and, if reports are to be believed, the flatulent. If it wasn’t for the fact that many are only too happy to enjoy titular prestige (plus a reported £83,000-a-year top-up fund), without wanting actually to sit on the upper house’s plush red-leather benches, then it seems unlikely a structure as supposedly decrepit as the Palace of Westminster could sustain a full complement of peers.

So, in Fowler’s own narrow terms, it would make sense to trim the House of Lords’ numbers, to halve them to 400 or so, as John Bercow, the Commons speaker, urged in 2017. And, if it is to be an effective legislature, it would make sense to fill it not with the lazy and snoozy, but with the switched-on and committed.

And yet for all the talk of reform, for all the blather about tweaking this and trimming that, the fundamental problem with the upper chamber remains the same as it always has been throughout its post-Medieval existence — it is anti-democratic. As an institution, it exists as a bulwark against the will of the people. If the House of Lords was democratic, if it did represent or feature the demos in some form, it would cease to be. For its reason to be lies precisely in its opposition to the people, its opposition to their power formally represented in the Commons. Its function is to check, revise and, where it deems necessary, impede the legislative will of our elected representatives.

In this sense, it is a chronic hangover from a pre-modern era of feudal entitlement, drawing its support from those still resistant to the promise of self-government. This is why a radical democrat like Thomas Paine called its earlier incarnation the ‘remains of aristocratic tyranny’. And it is why Oliver Cromwell, in an Act of Parliament in 1649, said that ‘The Commons of England [find] by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England’.