At last, Christmas has arrived; a distinguished old man has come down from the snow-dusted North to fill us all with the gift of warmth and good cheer against these dark, wintery days. The time for rejoicing has arrived and we will bask in its glory. The man we have to thank, though, is not Father Christmas, but Gordon Brown, who has travelled from Scotland to deliver us tidings of great joy for all mankind, in the form of proposed reform to the House of Lords. It is an opportunity of which we must take full advantage.
Lords reform has not really been on the table since the halcyon days of 2012, when Nick Clegg, that fallen Liberal idol, was thwarted by his Conservative masters, completing his portfolio of abject failure. But now, at long last, Keir Starmer has committed to following the recommendations of Brown’s report by replacing the House of Lords with a democratically elected chamber. Opposition to this commitment has come predictably from the reactionary Tory right, but also from a wider range of figures across the political spectrum. They are all wrong.
I will not waste a great deal of space setting out in detail the largely self-evident case against the House of Lords as it stands, but there are essentially two issues. First, it is an absurdly bloated chamber, with a membership in excess of 800, making it the second largest legislative chamber in the world, behind only China’s National People’s Congress. Second, the system of appointments is fundamentally anti-democratic and open to rampant abuse. The idea that it is a chamber of experts is simply laughable and the prospect of a Baroness Dorries should fill us all with woe and fear. The House of Lords, then, is simply not fit for purpose and its defence is impossible.
The alternative course often pursued by opponents of reform is not to defend the current Lords per se, but instead to object to efforts to change the status quo. This argument comes in two forms. First, it is argued that constitutional reform is simply a distraction from more pressing issues such as the cost of living crisis. This is ridiculous. Nobody is suggesting that we can simply forget the cost of living while we deal with those pesky Lords – we can fix both. And setting ourselves on stronger, more democratic constitutional foundations can surely only help to improve the lives of ordinary people in the longer term. The argument on the basis of reform as a distraction is at best misguided and at worst a form of temporal NIMBYism, in which current governments refuse to undertake necessary longer-term reforms because of the hassle or political capital they would have to expend.
The second strand of the defence of the status quo is the assertion that although the Lords is imperfect, an alternative would be worse still. It is asserted that increased democratic legitimacy would lead the upper chamber to lock horns with the Commons, and reference is often made to the horrors of US-style legislative gridlock. Again, though, this argument is wilfully blind to the facts, fixating on the failures of the American system, and ignoring the large number of far effective elected bicameral legislatures, with the Australian Senate providing a good example for the English-speaking world. As in so much else, we are guilty of paying too much attention to our friends across the Pond.
The clear case for Lords reform thus cannot be derailed by arguments based on the maintenance of the status quo. It is time for us to embrace the spirit of accountability, of democracy, and of sharing: the spirit of Christmas. We must honour the ghost of Liberals past and finish what Nick Clegg almost started. All I want for Christmas is Lords reform… and to stop Dorries getting that peerage!