House of Lords reform: Boris Johnson and Liz Truss's resignation honours lists are fuelling public opposition to unelected peers – Willie Sullivan
It was created to embed aristocratic privilege at the heart of our politics and, in more recent years, has evolved into a private club largely for the supporters, friends and donors of Prime Ministers. These days it tends to impinge on the public consciousness largely when it is in the news due to scandal, which often revolves around controversial new members being elevated to its crimson benches.
However, the political chaos of the last year has thrust the Lords into the spotlight as it is now in the unusual situation of having multiple honours lists piling up, notably the incoming resignation lists from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. These promise to create a slate of new peerages, handing the recipients a job for life shaping our laws while being able to claim more than £300 a day in allowances.
What is now clear is that the public is losing patience with this squalid spectacle of Prime Ministers ramming new peers into the already bloated Lords after they have left office, no matter how disastrous the circumstances of their exit. Recent polling conducted for the Electoral Reform Society shows that just seven per cent of people support Boris Johnson creating new peers in his resignation honours. That figure has dropped from just 13 per cent when the same question was polled in July after he resigned.
At the same time, a growing proportion of the public now opposes the practice, as 61 per cent say Mr Johnson should not create any new peers in his resignation honours. This compares to 50 per cent of people who were against Theresa May’s resignation list in 2019.
If the public opposes the membership of parliament’s upper chamber being decided by unrestrained political patronage, the question is why does it continue? The feeble defence often put forward by the political class is that the public simply don’t care enough about reforming the House of Lords to attempt it. It is too technical and removed from people’s everyday lives to be of serious concern, they argue, and therefore the grubby status quo should remain.
Yet, the public does care about the health of our politics and the Lords is giving off the concerning impression that our politicians are operating by a different set of rules to ordinary people. While people across the country are having to cut back due to the cost-of-living crisis, Prime Ministers are allowed to stuff more and more friends onto the Lords gravy train without restraint.
Liz Truss’s honours list, in particular, will look like the political class handing itself rewards for failure. No matter how badly a government does, a Prime Minister can still dish out rewards to their supporters and donors as if their tenure was a triumph. Aside from the unedifying optics of the incoming lists, they also highlight a wider problem with the ever-increasing size of the Lords.
Despite a recommendation in 2017 that the number of peers should be reduced to 600, it has continued to expand to more than 800, leaving the UK in the embarrassing situation of having a majority unelected parliament. The Lords is the second biggest legislative chamber in the world after only China’s National People’s Congress.
The Lords’ out-of-control size and the recent years of sleaze and scandal have brought the upper chamber to a tipping point where few agree it can go on in its current incarnation. That is partly why Labour has announced plans to abolish the Lords, which were drawn up by Gordon Brown and endorsed by Keir Starmer last year. The Labour leader has branded the Lords as “indefensible” and wants to replace it with a smaller elected chamber.
This presents a real opportunity to revitalise our democracy and bring parliament into the 21st century. An elected Lords doesn’t mean creating a mini version of the Commons, instead it opens up a chance to craft the upper chamber in a way that makes Westminster far more equal and representative of the country as a whole.
For instance, a chamber elected by proportional representation would mean the Lords would better reflect the political views of the country as a whole. Electing peers by PR would also mean that it could have gender quotas to ensure that equal representation of women is a basic requirement of our democracy, rather than a distant aspiration. Currently, just 28 per cent of peers are women.
A new, elected Lords could also have indirectly elected peers, that is politicians with an elected mandate from outside the chamber given seats in it, such as elected mayors or councillors. This would ensure that all four corners of the UK have far better representation baked in at parliament. Overnight the Lords could go from an unelected and unrepresentative private club for the political class to a legislature that looks and sounds far more like the people of this country.
This is not to pretend that reforming the Lords will be easy, it will butt up against entrenched opposition, not least from inside its own wood-panelled chamber. Any serious attempt to reform the House of Lords will also ignite a dense and technical debate about the UK’s constitutional arrangements. Yet at the heart of this debate is a simple principle: the people who make and shape our laws should be accountable to those who live under them.
Willie Sullivan is senior director of Scotland and campaigns at the Electoral Reform Society
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