Responsibility without Power
At the heart of a representative democracy is the prerogative to “vote the bastards out” when they don’t act in a representative manner, right? For Americans, with no history of a monarchy, the word “democracy” carries an almost royal privilege. Yet here in the United Kingdom–an indisputably democratic nation–the House of Lords remains.
As a distant observer of British politics prior to coming here, I thought that the House of Lords was a generally terrible idea. Just calling someone a Lord or a Baroness seemed antediluvian and gross, much less giving those lofty people political influence. From what I had heard though, it was a largely neutered institution that had little real power–much like the royal assent (i.e. the Queen’s ability to veto a bill. The last monarch to invoke her right to refuse royal assent was Queen Anne, on a bill allowing the Scottish to raise their own militia, and that was in 1708). But then why–I may have wondered idly to myself while watching an episode of Yes, Minister–did the British keep this silly, old House around at all?
I have no interest in advocating for or against Lords Reform, or the bill in its current draft, but simply find the whole discussion fascinating. I’ve also been quite surprised at just how interesting the House of Lords is in actual practice.Over time, the Lords has evolved into a body of experts (primarily); people at the top of their fields who are given titles. They spend months pouring over legislation with much more time and interest in the details than members of the Commons, who have constituencies to worry about, can do. It’s true that they are generally unable to block legislation that the Government wants, but the Lords’ recommendations and changes are publicly recorded. They can also delay bills for a great deal of time that they feel are particularly bad. More often then not, they provide a mild and thoughtful check in the parliamentary system where the Government operates under a mandate (coming from the idea that by being in the majority, the voters have agreed to their campaign manifesto as a whole), that basically allows them to push through anything they want until the next election.
Even while I’ve been working for a Member of the Commons this summer, I have discovered a great deal of respect for the work that the Lords does by being a different kind of body with motivations that are divorced from campaign promises, ipso facto, less political squabbling. Many of them are even “cross-benchers,” meaning that they do not belong to any political party. Peers are not politicians in the sense that they have constituents or are seeking reelection, and with 775 of them, there is very little publicity to go around. They include Nobel prize winners and Oscar winners. Most do not receive a salary (although many receive a per diem and traveling expenses) and they do not have staff.
Yesterday afternoon there was a debate going on in the Commons gallery over the Deputy Prime Minister’s Lord’s Reform bill. The Deputy PM is the leader of the Liberal Democrats (who are in a coalition with the Conservative party–an odd political bedfellow but one which allowed both parties to find power as neither had an outright majority over the Labour party after the 2010 elections) and Lords Reform is his pet project. The greatest change in this particular bill is to turn the Lords into an elected body, in which most of them would be required to run for a single non-renewable 15-year term. Although they would be elected (and therefore could be anyone, and not just professionals and experts), the bill creates a less flexible system of per diem compensation (As the MP I work for says, “When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”), and it will greatly reduce the number of Peers over time. This is reform in the true sense of the word–the House of Lords would change dramatically, while allowing them very little additional power over policymaking in return.
Debate over how to reform the Lords has been going on since the 1911 Parliament Act, and all the major parties agree that some reform is overdue–the rub is how to do it. How to keep the best bits: the expertise, the soft power, the time to deliberate, etc., while making it more representative of the whole country and kicking out the hereditary peers? Sadly, by putting all the reform measures into one bill, instead of breaking it up into separate issues, the possibility of consensus is slim.
This may prove to be one of the most interesting bills of the 2012/13 session, since it is primarily supported by the Liberal Democrats. And while the Conservatives are their partners in Government, it’s clear that they are not unanimously in support; just today, 70 Torys released a letter in opposition. Labour is also divided for various reasons, although their leadership may be able to rally a position based on embarrassing the Coalition by killing one of their bills.
Naturally most of the Peers are not thrilled with this bill, but as I mentioned they have little power to do much about it. This reminds me of the time when, (mostly) as an end-of-session joke, the Oregon House of Representatives drafted a bill to abolish the Oregon Senate. Of course, the Senate would likely never choose to abolish itself, but such is the question of reform in most democratic institutions, I suppose. The only institutions that can be reformed, apparently, are those that don’t do much harm anyways.
Here is a link to the Parliamentary Library’s brief on the draft House of Lord’s Reform bill, if you have additional interest in this subject. Also, I’ve been steadily keeping a blog about my whole experience working in Parliament and traveling around the UK: it’s a mixture of the thoughtful and the profane.