Lording it

David Cameron wants a ‘rapid review‘ of the House of Lords. This is his knee-jerk response to having his Chancellor thoroughly admonished and his intention to cut Tax Credits, rightly criticised for their cruel irrationality.

I followed the Lords’ debate. I read the articles of experts and heard the opinions of vested interests. The constitutional argument cut both ways. The arguments for the four motions put against the government’s tax credits statutory instrument were more convincing. The House of Lords decided that serving the interests of the working poor was justified and more important than serving the arrogance and ineptitude of this government or the conventional expectations of an uncodified constitution. They spent a lot of time considering their remit and the loophole that Osborne’s game playing had afforded them. It was a thorough and earnest attempt by them, to interpret and be convinced of their jurisdiction, responsibility and capacity. It was somewhat akin to the persuasive measures found in a courtroom. Majority consensus was reached. The government was called out on its duplicity and shortsightedness and, in the end, was skewered by its own incompetence on a technicality.

There were outcries of ‘constitutional crisis‘; that the House of Lords had crossed a line; exceeded its privilege and undermined the primacy of the House of Commons. Whether it had or not is still being questioned in some quarters, particularly by those for whom Osbornomics is still acceptable. Hence the ‘rapid review’.

I have sympathy for those who fear jurisdictional ambiguity and power imbalances. I see it; feel it every day and the irony of the who that are suddenly demanding this review is not lost on me. As with Law, we shouldn’t get to pick and choose what applies without consequence. Like state sanctioned execution, we don’t get to say it’s ok just because we don’t like the target. Rules are rules. Principles are principles. But they have to either be consensual and properly codified or be reliant on precedent and convincing argument. In the forever absence of the former, the Lords took advantage of the latter.

I care little for the tribal straitjacket that assumes you can’t be left-leaning and still support aspects of Establishment, Monarchy and tradition. I rather love the rituals, the symbolism, the pomp and circumstance and I don’t feel threatened or diminished by ‘it’ or its people, insomuch as it does not have power to undermine Democracy. We can pare it down, certainly but I don’t think that just getting rid of it or them will strengthen the demos because that’s not where our problems, myriad, though they be, really lay.

The House of Lords is a scrutiny and revising chamber. It scrutinised George Osborne’s intentions, found them wanting and suggested that he revise his plans. Sometimes I agree with its decisions and sometimes I don’t. I only ask that its inquiries and considerations are honest, sincere and thorough.

I like the Lords. I more than accept, though, that it badly needs some reform. The thing is: I really don’t want the second chamber to become yet another House of elected people who fail to represent us. I don’t trust our current generation of politicians enough to see their number increased and I have little faith in the democratic vehicles and platforms, currently already at our disposal. Pun intended. I dislike the idea of having the tedium of what would amount to another General Election and can see logistical chaos and greater risk of political imbalance in it being held at the same time and a completely ridiculous expense if held on a different year. Neither do I fancy the inevitable poison of ego-driven stalemate, a gamesmanship that I see between the two Houses in the United States.

Perhaps I can be persuaded to change my mind, one day and, maybe, I can even be convinced that a second chamber is actually not necessary, at all but both possibilities, particularly as isolated measures, are moot to my present mind and I don’t believe either would hold any more guarantee of democratic progress than the ad hoc promises of devolution will automatically increase people power. We’d need to be a darned sight more grown up and a lot better informed.

Personally, I would like it if we first tried changing the terms and conditions of the appointees. I’d like to reduce, significantly, the total number of peers and curb their ostentatious allowances. I’d set an upper age limit and cancel life peerages and any remaining hereditary privileges by fixing their terms of office to something like between eight and sixteen years. I’d want to ensure continuum and overlap of old hands and fresh blood but also to minimise the effects of nepotism and self-interested expediency that are, currently, all too achievable.

I’d keep the number of Bishops about the same, rename them collectively as Lords Spiritual and try to ensure that they more reflectively represent the diverse make-up of the population’s faiths. Including humanists. After all, it takes a certain faith to not believe, too.

As for MPs: well, there are far, far too many. I would suggest that no Parliamentary Party, even of Government and Opposition, be allowed to appoint more than, say, ten or fifteen Party peers within any Parliamentary term. And even that number seems a bit generous but that’s probably because, at the moment, once they’re in, they take root. I would welcome a concerted cull.

I feel, strongly, that cross-benchers/non-affiliates should at least equal the sum total of politically affiliated members and Lords Spiritual. The House of Lords Appointments Commission – which could also do with shaking up – has the remit for vetting all nominees but also and especially for appointing ‘independents’ but there are relatively few appointed each year since the Parliamentary Parties hog most of the space. The areas of interest, experience and expertise are filled with too many aloof, corporate-scale professionals and too few from vocational careers and familiar lifestyles. As being over twenty-one – which seems absurdly young – ‘expertise’ and ‘a willingness to commit’ are the gateway requirements, we could try elevating to this high office, retired union reps, policemen/women, journalists; retired or on-sabbatical teachers, tradesmen, professors, comedians, medics, actors, hairdressers, care workers, etc, etc, etc. Real people, who look like us and have come from doing the same kinds of work as us and the people we know. Perhaps some kind of scouting and invitation process could be considered and a campaign to promote awareness of the nomination mechanism.

I know I don’t have all the answers or maybe even any, really and maybe the second half of this post is my intellect submitting to intuition. I’m just thinking aloud. But I’m not in charge and I don’t have a plethora of experts on tap to alert me to the consequences and palatable, viable alternatives. And, unlike some, I’m in no rush to create another constitutional fiasco to salve a self-inflicted hissy fit.

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