In this article, Thomas Laver argues that the Liberal Democrats should fully engage with the House of Lords, to ensure that the powers it is vested with are used in the best manner, and so we can reform it from within.
As Lib Dems, should we defend an aged, unelected upper house? Current policy commits us to an elected upper chamber – probably through a form of proportional representation – but is the House of Lords really so bad? I’ll admit the answer is probably yes, but boy isn’t it a fun little relic to keep around, and one that has so many helpful uses for the Lib Dems…
So what is the Lib Dem presence like in the House of Lords then? Well, we have a good round 100 lords in the chamber, a significant presence amongst the 794 total. Just think of that – 100 Lib Dems in Parliament: far in excess of anything we’ve (ever) managed in the Commons. Only an unelected upper chamber could deliver such a majestic result, and give us the degree of power over legislation that we deserve due to our general election vote shares (which clearly merit a level of representation undelivered by First Past the Post). The result of this is that the House of Lords helps to maintain our influence in Westminster, so perhaps we should get behind it and be shameless about our use of the power it grants us, as a legitimate exercise of democracy that the established electoral system just doesn’t recognise?
And this brings me on neatly to the next point – we’re in and we have power, so we can work to enact any reform from the inside. It’s a peculiarity of reform that in order to change or even scrap one of the Houses of Parliament (I refer to both because even the House of Commons is not perfect and infallible, as frequent scandals seem to prove) it must first be passed by that House. In the past constitutional crises have emerged from this, such as in 1910 when the Lords almost refused to give way on a new Parliament act limiting their power over finance bills. To prevent this we need people dedicated to the reform of the Lords actually in the Lords, and so if you disagree with the Lords as an institution IT IS IN FACT YOUR DUTY to become one, to bring a liberal, democratic utopia, but also to bring the entire place down from the inside. The Liberal Democrat presence in the House of Lords therefore serves as a brilliant infiltration, prepared to mobilise and reform (or scrap) the outdated institution when the time is right for (liberal) revolution!
However, in all the debates about the House of Lords, there is another argument should be noted – to quote Monty Python, “ ‘tis a silly place”. Where else can you find elderly gentlemen dressing up in robes and processing around before a throne, or a man dressed up in black frilly clothing knocking on a door with a stick so self-importantly? Such traditions are a quaint and amusing relic of the past that show a sense of heritage in our lawmaking – while this at times may inspire some with a sense of pride in a nation and institution preserved against the test of time, this also shows that the chamber needs reforming to make it less of a national joke. The traditions are arguably a farce, and take away valuable time from debating real issues such as the Green Belt, Brexit, and liberties. I would never advocate for tearing down the architectural brilliance of the chamber, or abolishing these traditions outright, but they need to be recognised as superfluous to the law-making responsibilities vested in our lords, and minimised. As a frequenter of Conservative Port and Policy (much to my shame) I can appreciate the fun that can be had from ridiculous politics, and the engagement that it can bring, but serious debate is also required from the red benches, which the Lib Dem lords are, to their credit, attempting to do.
So yes, the House of Lords is fundamentally unfair. It’s unelected, recognises hereditary rights to titles, and has obscure and odd traditions that just make their business at times incomprehensible to real people. But we Lib Dems should support it, remain in it, and keep appointing Lords to it because it needs reform from the inside to make it more relatable and effective as a legislative chamber. It also helps that it gives us the influence upon laws that our party is due (yet denied under FPTP), and is an amusing joke to laugh at, but in order to improve it at all we need to fling ourselves into it wholly, not run from it. Lord Tyler, Lord Ashdown, and others show us how it can be done: participate, legislate, and reform – this is how we make the most of the House of Lords as it is, and leave the path open to changing it more for the better.