Our bloated second chamber

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 19th October 2015

The House of Lords is already the biggest chamber in the democratic world – yet it is growing in size with each new government. As peers sit in the chamber for life, it grows with each new Prime Minister using political patronage to re-adjust the balance in favour of their party.

The 2010 Coalition agreement formalised this aim, stating that ‘Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election’. To match the 2015 Commons vote share, the House of Lords would have to grow from 782* to 1545.

More recently, the Prime Minister has suggested it is seat-share rather than vote-share that matters, stating ‘it is important to make sure the House of Lords more accurately reflects the situation in the House of Commons’. This could mean various things – an equivalent majority in political peers would need 116 extra Conservatives, while an equivalent majority across the whole Lords would need an extra 342 Conservatives. Exactly matching the Commons would mean a House of Lords with 8,663 Members.

This would not only replicate the grossly unfair translation of votes to seats in the Commons, but would create the dangerous precedent of the governing party in the Commons always having a majority in the revising chamber. Combined with the strict partisan loyalty of political peers, this undermines claims that the Lords can be a truly effective and critical revising chamber and a check on the government of the day.

Without the ability to forcibly retire peers, adjusting party balance means increasing parties’ numbers of members. This means the House of Lords can only increase in size, creating a strain on resources and, importantly, increasing the ratio of unelected to elected members of the legislature.

Yet simply introducing a strict retirement age in itself wouldn’t solve the problem. Whilst it would mean that peers would leave the House, unless we restrict the rate at which peers enter the House the size will still increase. Even if the size were capped we’d still have problems with the composition. As it stands now, the Liberal Democrats are massively over-represented in the second chamber – and even with a membership cap this issue would remain until the peers retired.

Some have suggested a ‘cull’ of members to bring the composition and size under control. Yet making party leaders forcibly retire peers in order to bring the composition of the House under control would be an invitation for the leadership to purge any independent voices from the chamber, and retain reliable and less rebellious peers willing to always vote on the party line. If we are going to remove members, it should be up to the public to decide who stays in the House and who leaves.

We’ve had over 100 years since the 1911 Parliament Act that first reformed the House of Lords.

The preamble states:

“It is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.”

We’ve had endless tweaks to the House of Lords in this time, each one creating another set of problems. It’s about time we followed though with the aims of the 1911 bill and created a fully elected House of Lords.

* On 27 August the 2015 dissolution honours list created a further 45 Lords. The figures in the blog were created prior to this list being published.

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