Joyce McMillan: Need for reform of Lords remains

Rare victory for Upper House underlines case for an elected second chamber, writes Joyce McMillan
George Osborne has only temporarily been forced to dismount his austerity high horse by Lords' revolt. Picture: PAGeorge Osborne has only temporarily been forced to dismount his austerity high horse by Lords' revolt. Picture: PA
George Osborne has only temporarily been forced to dismount his austerity high horse by Lords' revolt. Picture: PA

Earlier this year, soon after the general election, the Electoral Reform Society published a well-argued report pointing out the extent to which the result of that election failed to reflect the reality of the votes cast across the UK. The first-past-the-post system, so beloved by Britain’s two main parties, had awarded an overall Commons majority to a ­party that won less than 37 per cent of the vote, caused the apparent complete humiliation of a Labour Party that ran in barely six points behind them, and failed to reflect voting intentions in Scotland to the extent that the SNP won 95 per cent of our seats with barely 50 per cent of the vote; to say nothing of the plight of Ukip, which won 12 per cent of votes, but only 0.2 per cent of seats – one MP out of 650.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) can, of course, be expected to point out these anomalies, with a slightly monotonous regularity. This time around, though, they were right to argue that the distortions inherent in first-past-the-post had reached new extremes. And one phrase used in the report is beginning to ring ever more true, as the story of David Cameron’s majority Conservative government unfolds; the election result, said the ERS, represented “a return to single party government… but not necessarily a return to stability”.

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For there was no disguising the anger and discomfiture of the Conservative front-bench, this week, as a House of Lords alliance – composed mainly of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, bishops, and cross benchers – united to defeat their key proposal on the drastic reduction of tax credit payments to low-earning households, from next April. That the policy itself is a bad one, involving an extremely harsh attack on the incomes of the government’s beloved “hard working families”, now seems almost beyond dispute.

The truth is, though, that British governments have become unused to having their policies rejected simply because they make no sense; the cult of “strong government”, encouraged by our electoral system, means that they routinely expect to be able to force them through regardless. And although the Prime Minister tried, in a well-spun phrase, to dismiss this week’s Lords defeat as an alliance of “the unelected and the unelectable”, the whole debate nonetheless exposed both the very slender size of his Commons majority, and the wider truth that the politics offered by Cameron and Osborne do not really command majority support in the country; indeed it’s an uncomfortable fact that the current composition of the House of Lords – with 249 Tory peers, 212 Labour ones, 112 Liberal Democrats, and 244 assorted “others” – actually comes closer to reflecting the real party preferences of the British people than the Commons does.

Now of course, this is not an argument for the continuation of the Lords in its present form; if their Lordships’ party allegiances happen to reflect public opinion relatively accurately, the Lords are hopelessly unrepresentative in many other ways, and their method of appointment highly questionable. What’s clear, though, is that a House of Commons elected by such a disproportional system is both in desperate need of the balancing power provided by an upper house, and unable to sanction any reform of the Lords that would involve it being elected by a method visibly fairer than that used for the Commons.

The Commons’ traditional electoral system not only distorts the outcome of its own elections, in other words, but acts as a permanent barrier to meaningful Lords reform; and the furious reaction of the government, this week, only demonstrates just how rare it is for the Lords to succeed in striking any serious blow against government policy, however flawed.

Yet if this has been an uncomfortable week at Westminster for the Tories, it also poses difficult questions for Britain’s centre-left parties, who have this week found themselves cheering on the unelected house, as a last line of defence against Tory excess. Labour, as the UK’s main opposition party, has no coherent policy for the reform or replacement of the Lords, precisely because of the issues such a move would raise about the democratic credentials of the Commons itself.

And the SNP, which supports electoral reform at Westminster, and has no truck with the Lords in its present form, shares with all the other mainstream parties in Scotland an apparent complacency about the functioning of our own parliament, and about the limits of what can be achieved through electoral reform, that reflects little credit on any of them.

The people of Scotland would be well advised, of course, not to take for granted, or to cease to protect, the Bundestag-style electoral system included in the devolution settlement of 1999, which ensures that the balance of parties in the chamber will broadly reflect their real electoral preferences.

Yet it’s also true – and should surely be of interest, if anyone at Westminster cared to analyse the Scottish experience since 1999 – that proportional representation alone does not guarantee the close scrutiny of legislation, or, in itself, provide fail-safe constitutional checks and balances.

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A more powerful Scotland might well need an upper chamber of its own, to help refine legislation and hold government to account; and it’s certainly arguable that despite the electoral system, the current Scottish Parliament is just too small, and perhaps too complacent, to operate the kind of powerful and autonomous committee system once envisaged for it, as a vital check on executive power.

For the moment, though, all sensible talk about constitutional improvement seems to be suspended, replaced at Westminster by an ugly mix of rampant traditionalism and government aggression, and at Holyrood by a general intellectual laziness, accompanied by occasional calls either for complete independence, or for a complete end to the independence debate.

And while organisations like the Electoral Reform Society work away at the task of suggesting improvements that might actually strengthen our democracy, we scan the ­horizon in vain for a major political party prepared to take up the cause; or to learn serious progressive lessons from events like this week’s tax credit row, rather than simply rejoicing at the sight of George Osborne being briefly unseated from his austerity high horse, before he climbs back aboard, and resumes the hunt.