Asking Theresa May To Show ‘Restraint’ In Her Resignation Honours Misses The Point – The Lords Is Bust

Josiah Mortimer
Author:
Josiah Mortimer

Posted on the 6th August 2019

When even Peers are calling for an overhaul of the House of Lords, you know the chamber is broken.

A few weeks ago, the Lord Speaker’s committee – set up in response to concerns over the bloated size of the 2nd chamber – urged Theresa May not to appoint huge swathes of Peers after she steps down. These “resignation honours” are a tool of patronage when a PM steps down: they can literally reward allies with seats for life.

The scale of privilege and cronyism in the upper house has an impact on all of us. Now we need to build a movement for scrapping or replacing the unelected House – rather than simply painting over the rot.

Barely had the ink dried on the report than we heard the former PM is set to appoint over a dozen peerages to the circa-800 member chamber – already the largest upper house in the world. Among them are rumoured to be defeated MP (and later May’s chief of staff) Gavin Barwell. You can also expect party donors and other apparatchiks, if past experience is anything to go by.

In 2015, it emerged that nearly one in five of the Tory Lords appointed by David Cameron made huge cash donations to the party – pouring £23million into party coffers.

In case it needs saying, adding a new batch of party appointees is unlikely to do our crumbling Parliament any favours – or meet May’s supposed aim to tackle the “burning injustices” of society. Just 4% of voters feel they are properly represented at Westminster, according to the latest BMG polling for the Electoral Reform Society. No wonder: the majority of Parliamentarians are unelected.

But the sheer size of the thing also grates on voters (this matters when these unelected figures can claim £305 a day tax-free in expenses). The new report from the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House showed the slow progress being made to cut the second chamber down to size.

The committee calls on the Prime Minister to “show restraint” when making resignation appointments. Laudable as this aim might be, it sounds an awful lot like asking kids to show restraint when let loose in a sweet shop. Why would they?

The report highlights that while the Lords has reduced from 823 members in June 2017 to 778 now, the chamber had missed the committee’s benchmark for the year. Half of the departures over the past 12 months were due to members dying – hardly a sound basis for determining the composition of the mother of all Parliaments.

And there’s another problem: as the number of life peers declines, the power of hereditary aristocrats actually grows: they are still guaranteed 92 seats in the upper chamber, along with the Bishops’ 26. Perversely, the clout of the landed gantry is actually growing, such is the state of our absurd political system.

As the number of life peers declines, the power of hereditary aristocrats actually grows: they are still guaranteed 92 seats in the upper chamber, along with the Bishops’ 26. Click To Tweet

The size issue isn’t helped by the fact that 17 peers are currently on a “leave of absence” – doing who-knows-what around the world – and can return at any point, without having to give an explanation of what they’ve been doing or who they’ve been working for. Just when you thought the Lords couldn’t look any more like a private members’ club…

New figures show that just 26.6% of current Lords are women. 5.8% of members were from minority ethnic groups (compared to 19.5% of the England & Wales public, according to the 2011 census). And the average age of members is 70 years old.

Relying on the benevolence of one outgoing PM to keep the Lords down to size is a fool’s errand: the chamber will remain unelected, unreformed and at the mercy of the next Tory leader.

Of course, this is just a microcosm of the dire handling of our uncodified constitution in the UK. Democracy is at the whim of the PM of the day – and we all lose out.

Two hundred years ago in Manchester, tens of thousands of people changed history by bravely standing up for the right to parliamentary representation. Today, we still have a deeply flawed Westminster set-up.

What would a genuinely modern second chamber look like? It’s time to develop a progressive vision for “power for the many”, to begin to stem the dire decline in our democratic standards. This isn’t technical – it’s about people’s lives, as news emerges of peers trying to stymie efforts for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

A few ideas for starters: rather than stuffing more donors and apparatchiks into the unelected House, Mrs May could take a stand: call for much-needed cross-party reform talks. She could urge Boris Johnson to back moves that already have consensus, like Lord Grocott’s bill to phase out hereditary peer “by-elections” (which guarantee aristocratic representation). And the Conservative party could listen to the roughly two-thirds of voters – across all parties – who want a fairly-elected second chamber.

The scale of privilege and cronyism in the upper house has an impact on all of us. Now we need to build a movement for scrapping or replacing the unelected House – rather than simply painting over the rot.

In August, hundreds of citizens and activists will come together to try and get to grips with this and many more democratic issues. Because if we don’t respond to the constitutional crisis, we simply cede the debate to opportunists and demagogues.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post

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