Saturday, March 03, 2007

House of Lords Reform

It feels quite strange, sitting here waiting for next Wednesday. I have been 15 years in the House of Lords, courtesy of a 17th-century bugger and a 17th-century bastard and my mother's untimely death. I have enjoyed every minute of it, though especially the time since David Cameron became leader -- it is great to be part of a team that knows how to win.

On Wednesday the Commons will decide whether we are to have an elected element. In principle, I am a supporter of an elected House of Lords if this could be done in a way which did not immediately subjugate it to the domination of the party whips. And it is in that sort of area, I think, that we will have to do battle with the government over the subsequent bill. No major party is going to support an appointed house, and I don't believe that even the most contented Lords backbencher is going to stand up for ever to the will of the Commons on that. But we might well stand firm on such matters as the power of the House of Lords, its political composition, how the appointments commission is to be appointed and its terms of reference decided, but most important of all how peers (or rather, as I hope we will be called - sorry, they will be called - Senators) are to be elected, and what the terms of their election will be.

Jack Straw proposes a party list system. I don't see this as being acceptable -- it is just domination by the whips in another form. , What we need is something which will allow true local participation, with a recognisable community expressing its views as to whom it wants to accord the privilege and comfort of 15 years of unaccountable participation in government. To my mind this ought to be election on the basis of counties of cities -- about six senators per million of population, that is two each election for Hampshire, one every other election for Wandsworth.

We won't carry the Lib Dems with us on this -- they will want proportional representation in whatever form it is offered, and that almost automatically implies a party list and party hack system. If we are to win through, it will be with the support of the crossbenches and of the backbenches of the Labour Party in the Lords. The crossbenches we can win if our arguments are good enough, so that leaves the government's own supporters as the main obstacle to their victory. Just as it should be.

Or should the House of Commons decide that it cannot decide, I hope that we will nonetheless propose reforms to the system of appointment to regularise the size of the house, and the qualities of the people to be appointed to it. We ought to learn the lesson of the Thatcher years -- that it is best to reform when you don't need to so that you don't get reform that you don't need later on. If you see what I mean.

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