Last week’s government reshuffle saw some strange moves. Boris Johnson appointed a former speechwriter to John Major, Lord True, as a minister overseeing constitutional reform. A strange move because Lord True is one of just a few in politics today who has defended the role of hereditary peers.
It’s an appointment which completely undermines No. 10’s promise to deliver “the people’s government” and consider the “broader aspects” of the constitution.
As reported in The Times this week, Lord True has repeatedly defended both the bloated size of the House of Lords and its hereditary peers. While the House of Lords Act 1999 removed the right of most of the hereditary peers to sit and vote in the chamber, there are still 92 peers who are replaced in a so-called ‘by-election’ when one retires, dies or is excluded – an election which only people (almost entirely men) from only a couple of hundred aristocratic families are allowed to stand in.
In 35 hereditary by-elections, the average number of voters has been a whopping…28 aristocrats. Only those who are current hereditary peers from the deceased/resigned Lord’s political group can vote.
Speaking in a 2018 debate, Lord True revealed his opposition to reform stems from concerns that Conservative representation would be reduced, while the Liberal Democrats are ‘grossly over-represented’. In fact, the Liberal Democrats have around 12% of the Lords and got 12% in the 2019 General Election. If the concern is about ensuring fair representation for all parties, one way to do that would, of course, be to elect the second chamber with proportional representation.
For a handful of peers, the idea of democratic accountability in our revising chamber is heresy, while guaranteeing the representation of a tiny aristocratic clique is perfectly normal. Another sign that the House of Lords is a private members’ club for an elite and privileged few.
Ending the automatic representation of hereditary peers is a tiny but vital step in both reducing the unsustainable size of the chamber and starting to bring it into the modern era.
At around 800 members, the House of Lords is the second largest upper chamber in the world – surpassed only by China’s National People’s Congress – and costs the taxpayer millions each year. With peers seeing their daily pay rise to £323 per day when they sign in from April, this cost is only set to increase.
If Lord True’s appointment is anything to go by, the Lords looks set to be locked in a feudal era: a super-sized house of super-sized expense claims… and no way of kicking them out.
All of which throws doubt on the motives for the government’s supposed reason for wanting to move the House of Lords up North. An unelected house of hereditary aristocrats that happens to be up North is little better than one in London.
Voters are sick of the inaction. It’s no wonder nearly 200,000 people have signed an ERS petition launched in December calling for abolition and replacement of the House of Lords. It’s time for ministers to listen.
We’ve long campaigned to scrap the bloated House of Lords and replace it with a fairly elected upper chamber – one which reflects the whole of the United Kingdom. Then we can finally move power from unelected aristocrats to voters across the country.
Megan Collins is a placement student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham.
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