For far too many of its members, the second chamber of our Parliament is a private members’ club. The House of Lords – the UK’s revising chamber – is packed to the brim with appointees – and they have a huge sway over our country.
We’re alone in Europe for having a totally unelected revising chamber. Not only that, but at around 800 members it is grossly over-sized. Globally, only China has a bigger upper house, and they merely meet to rubber-stamp government policies. France manages on 348 members, Spain with 266. India, with over a billion people, has just 245.
With great size, comes a lack of responsibility. Millions of pounds are claimed in expenses each year by Lords who barely contribute. Many have a web of business interests, with peers given almost total free rein to lobby on behalf of others. And we have no way of kicking them out.
Because the bloated House of Lords is so blatantly broken, there is overwhelming support for change from across society. Polls show that two-thirds of voters want an elected second chamber.
Not only that, there is support for an elected upper house among Conservative MPs, while it’s also a Labour manifesto commitment. Pretty much all the other parties are committed to change. Of course, that change won’t come without a battle – unaccountable power never gives up its own power easily – which is why we are leading the charge.
Whenever a new institution has been created in the past two decades – from the Scottish Parliament to the Welsh and London Assemblies, one thing has stood out: none of them use Westminster’s out-dated, one-party-takes-all voting system.
Unlike the Commons, where there is resistance to changing the voting system, it’s clear that an elected second chamber would offer a clean slate: it would almost certainly have to be elected using a proportional system where seats matched how people voted.
We have come close to securing change in recent memory. In 2012, proposals to introduce an elected upper house secured backing from a majority of MPs. Using the Commons’ broken First Past the Post system was not even on the cards.
The reforms were only scuppered in the last minute by a fall out between the Conservatives and Lib Dems – regarding an unrelated policy.
Now the campaign is picking up pace again. The Labour leadership are committed to scrapping and replacing the bloated private members’ club that is the Lords (Jeremy Corbyn has also suggested it would have to be PR-elected). Conservatives too increasingly recognise that ‘taking back control’ cannot mean handing more influence to an unelected elite in the Lords.
The fact that the Commons is already elected – albeit under a broken system – makes a ‘big bang’ win difficult. So we have to put our politics on the road to reform, one step at a time.
The House of Lords is not on the way to better democracy – there is no democracy. That creates a real advantage to dealing with the Lords first. Scrapping it gives us a blank slate to ask: What would a ‘gold standard’ revising chamber look like? How can we truly reflect the diverse skills and knowledge of the whole British public?
When it comes to improving our democracy, in some ways it is also easier to start from scratch – to look first at where there is no democracy (as in the Lords) – rather than convincing the already-elected that they must be chosen in another way.
And when representatives are chosen through a proportional system – when seats match how people vote – the chamber will gain legitimacy in the eyes of the voters.
Institutions with a strong democratic mandate can speak up with greater clout. That means a democratic upper house would put pressure on the Commons to follow suit and become more legitimate and more democratic. It is a virtuous circle: more democracy in turn leads to more democracy, as voters become empowered and raise their voices – this time knowing they’ll be heard.
Over the past year, we have been working with other campaigners to put House of Lords reform on the agenda, as a route to securing a truly representative Palace of Westminster.
It’s time to abolish the bloated House of Lords and create a new, proportionally-elected chamber that we can be truly proud of.
This is a step towards winning fair votes across the board – and it’s within our grasp.
Join the campaign today, and let’s build an unstoppable campaign for a proportional Parliament.
Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. Photography by Annabel Moeller
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