Manifestos have been published for what is probably one of the most distinctly British elections. It’s not the election of an MP or a councillor, the electorate is relatively small, and turnout has historically been high. March 21 will be polling day for the election of a hereditary peer to join the House of Lords.
It can come as a surprise to people that the House of Lords has elections – its detractors usually refer to it in a disparaging tone as the “unelected chamber” – and it is true the vast majority of the roughly 800 members haven’t faced the ballot box in order to sit there but elections are held. Even stranger to some people is the fact that only people eligible to stand in these elections are hereditary peers, that is to say noble ladies and gentlemen who have inherited a title from a family member. There are 27 candidates for the latest vacancy, created by the death of Lord Lyell, including Lord Limerick whose manifesto this year departs from previous years in that it sadly does not rhyme. The announcement of the by-election was condemned as “ludicrous” by the Electoral Reform Society and prompted renewed calls for House of Lords reform.
The effectiveness of the Lords as a revising chamber comes from two key features: the real-life experiences of its members and the fact it doesn’t have to face the public every five years at election time. The vast majority of members of the House of Lords respect their role as a revising chamber and would agree the final say should always be with their colleagues in the Commons as the elected representatives. It was a common theme in the recent BBC series “Meet the Lords” and has been a prevalent refrain from members of the Lords commenting on the game of parliamentary ping-pong which many feared would happen between the Lords and the Commons over the triggering of Article 50.
Public opinion on Lords reform was polled extensively in 2011-12 when, as part of the Coalition Agreement, the Liberal Democrats put forward a bill in the House of Commons on a package of reforms to the Lords which included making the chamber mostly elected. The public were asked their views on the current composition of the Lords and whether there were too many or too few Lords with particular backgrounds. By far the strongest feelings were towards politicians, with 60% of respondents saying there were too many former politicians in the chamber, and servicemen and scientists, with 42% and 41% respectively believing there should be more Lords from these backgrounds. However, by supporting a wholly elected second chamber (63% of respondents), the public seem not to realise they will be getting a second chamber 100% comprised of politicians! An appointed Lords does have a considerable number of politicians – 27% of the chamber in 2010 had this background – but there are also a considerable number from other sectors including business and commerce (14%), higher education (11%), the legal profession (10%), the voluntary sector (5%), and trade unions (4%).
Peter Mandelson - as unpopular as he might appear to be with the general public, the political class, and the currently Parliamentary Labour Party - does know a thing or two about British politics and the European Union, being as he served as Britain’s Commissioner to the EU with a trade portfolio for four years followed by two years as the Secretary of State for Business, Skills, and Innovation in the UK Parliament. His experience means he is able to make a valuable contribution to debates on trade and European issues. Similarly, John Bird – a fairly recent addition to the Lords who took his seat less than a year ago – can make a strong contribution to debates on homeless young people, prisons, and the importance of adult education. Lord Bird founded the Big Issue after experiencing periods of homelessness during his childhood and early teens. He also had several spells in prison during his teens and twenties during which time he learnt to read and write.
An appointed Lords gives us a chance to hear Tanni Grey-Thompson speak on accessibility in sport, Professor Robert Winston lobby for increased funding for early years education, and Alfred Dubs use his experience of refugee resettlement to encourage the government to revisit its stance on unaccompanied child refugees. An elected Lords will give us a Commons 2.0; it might have longer terms or even term limits but it will still be another elected chamber choked by partisan aversion to compromise and politicians eager to please the party whips and climb the greasy pole. The House of Lords doesn’t have to answer to the public via the ballot box and is free to assert its view without fear of demotion or sacking - but let us not mistake that for being unaccountable, the media does an excellent job of highlighting the Lords missteps – so debate and revise laws more freely at the Commons.
As a former Liberal Democrat, I always felt as though I should be in favour of a wholly elected Lords but I’m not. If political will conspires to make it happen then I won’t be crushed – there are far more important things to worry about – but I do feel Britain will have lost some of its history and tradition and British politics will have lost some of its most effective law makers.