The House of Lords is one of the great conundrums of British politics. Every radical government since 1911 has tried to reform it, with varying degrees of success. Yet it still remains, 102 years later, unelected, half reformed and, to some, a matter of ‘unfinished business’. The House of Lords is now increasingly packed (if not after the recent ‘top up’ full to the brim) with political appointees. Any new attempt at change faces two obstacles: the lack of agreement in the House of Commons and a lack of interest among the public.
Meg Russell’s new book asks us to rethink what we know. The House of Lords, she points out, is reformed. Since 1999, when Tony Blair undertook ‘stage one’, the House of Lords has changed. Removing the hereditary element altered the make-up of the House and did two things. First, it left a House with no majority and an influential group of Crossbenchers. Second, it made the Lords feel more legitimate and confident. Though it is not more democratically legitimate, it feels it has a stronger right to challenge.
Taken together this means that the House of Lords is more assertive. Compared with other Second Chambers, the House of Lords has strong powers but they have generally been little used. Since 1999, it has been prepared to use them to defeat the government directly, using its considerable powers more extensively. From terrorism to welfare it has inflicted defeats on the Blair, Brown and now the Cameron governments. Behind the scenes, it is also more skilful at reaching a ‘negotiated compromise’ with governments. In fact, governments now plan a Lords ‘strategy’ to make sure legislation gets through the Second Chamber.
Nor is it just the Lords that feels the effects of this new assertiveness. It can also have a powerful knock on effect on the Commons. The Commons itself is more restive and ready to challenge; this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious ever. Opposition from the Lords can often initiate unrest from Backbenchers in the Commons, a group already more willing and able to cause trouble.
So, as Russell points out, if reformers want a more assertive Second Chamber, they already have one. What does this mean for further reform? Reforms, Russell points out, are often entangled and bogged down in divisive discussion about the ‘elected element’. This obscures the issue of power, which goes to the heart of what a Second Chamber does or is.
Interestingly, while the archaic Lords seems a peculiarly British problem, the powers of the Second Chamber are not. It is clear what a lower chamber should do i.e. legitimise law through the fact that its members are elected. But what exactly should a Second Chamber do? Should it be able to create pause for thought in the legislative process? Should it be a reflective gathering of the ‘wise’? Every US President struggles with the seemingly mighty Senate . The Italian political system was gridlocked after the election this year because to govern you need a majority in both Houses (and no coalition got one thanks to Beppe Grillo). By contrast, some countries do not have one and some have abolished them (with Ireland proposing to do so soon). Until we can answer the fundamental question of what the Lords is for, the Lords looks set to stay with us.
Dr Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck.