The House of Lords is a centuries-old institution of British politics which has outlived many others and which, to this day, plays an active role in crafting the laws of the land.
But in its recent history there have been growing calls for it to be reformed, replaced or abolished altogether.
This week a key milestone was reached by those favouring the latter of these options. A petition calling for the Lords to be done away with entirely passed the magic 100,000 mark meaning it must now be debated in Parliament.
What this tells us is that there a lot of people who are angry about the chamber’s makeup and influence. At the very least they are disillusioned – sick and tired of its most offensive characteristics.
Some of these are referenced directly in the wording of the petition.
“The House of Lords is a place of patronage,” it states, something which is borne out by the facts.
Despite claims of career diversity, the largest employment background of peers by far is politics. Former MPs and representatives of other legislatures make up the bulk of appointees.
Our 2017 report The High Cost of Small Change found that, at the time of publication, the House hosted 184 ex-MPs, 26 ex-MEPs, 11 ex-MSPs, 8 ex-Welsh AMs, 6 ex-London AMs, 11 ex-MLAs and 39 current or ex-council leaders.
None of the 785 peers currently sitting in the House have been elected by the public – they are there either because of the family into which they are born, or because they have been appointed.
The petition also states members are “unaccountable.” The typical form of accountability associated with politics is having to stand for election every few years and thereby having to convince the public that you are worthy of remaining in post.
Peers are not subject to this public scrutiny and neither is there any practical way for citizens to remove a Lord they are dissatisfied with.
How many people in the UK could even name more than a handful of peers beyond Sir Alan Sugar and Karren Brady?
Peers “hold a disproportionate amount of influence and power,” the petition continues.
While democrats may disagree on how much power a second chamber should have – ranging from none to parity with the House of Commons – any amount of influence is surely disproportionate given it consists of unelected political cronies?
These are significant flaws at the heart of our democracy which must be resolved.
How to achieve that is the subject of debate, with the petition proposing a complete eradication of the House of Lords while a Lord Speaker’s committee has recommended a reduction to 600 members.
Another option would be to replace the Lords with a second chamber of around 300 members elected using the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation.
Firstly, this would mean a revising chamber is retained, ensuring this vital method of checking the House of Commons remains.
Secondly, the voting system proposed would mean the political makeup would reflect the support for parties across the UK, and patronage would cease to be a defining feature.
It is proposed that members in this new second chamber would serve 12 or 15-year terms and would be elected by thirds.
This – and the very fact it is the public who will decide who are members – would introduce real accountability and ensure the chamber’s democratic mandate was constantly being renewed.
If these changes were enacted, debates surrounding the proportionality of power would be held on completely different terms given this entirely altered structure.
This vision highlights that a revising chamber does not have to take away from our democracy, it can bolster it.
When this petition is debated in Parliament, let us hope that optimistic alternatives are promoted with the enthusiasm and energy this subject deserves.
This blog was first published by HuffPost UK on April 27, 2018.
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