A dystopian fantasy

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on the Electoral Reform Society’s fanciful musings on the future make-up of the Lords

It wasn’t just the unseasonable weather that made me think it was April Fools’ day while reading The Observer this morning. Sadly, the paper had fallen for a shoddy piece of so called research by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) claiming Labour will need to increase the size of the Lords twice over should we win the next general election. Using calculations based on current polling support, the ERS calculate that an incoming Labour government would need to increase the number of Peers to nearly 2,000, in order to realign party political balance following the much anticipated collapse of the LibDem vote. 

At 755 members, the Lords is certainly one of the largest second chambers in the world, with huge pressures on rooms and facilities. The daily prayers prior to each day’s business have become increasingly popular as the only means of guaranteeing a seat at the oral questions session that follows. And it’s also true that many in the House are fearful of rumours – now more or less quashed – that Prime Minister Cameron is set to appoint dozens and dozens of new peers. 

Part of the problem stems from the Coalition Agreement, which stated that appointments should be made with the objective of creating a chamber reflective of the votes cast for parties at the last election. However, after 78 Lords defeats for the government since May 2010, packing the place with a view to making such losses more unlikely would jeopardise the immensely important revising role of the chamber.

There is actually deep frustration from all sides of the Lords at the Coalition’s failure to engage on sensible discussions about limiting numbers, while also balancing retirements with the need to bring in fresh blood. The failure of Nick Clegg’s reform Bill makes the need for immediate action much more pressing.

Mr Clegg has now promised to legislate to remove Peers convicted of criminal offences. He could go further and legislate to allow others to retire. Currently members can only take leave of absence but there is no doubt that many of the elderly and infirm in the House would retire if the law allowed, swiftly bringing the total down.  

The ERS’s assumption of a total re-balancing after each general election is completely unrealistic - and more akin to a dystopian fantasy. And as Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit has pointed out, it would be a foolish and unsustainable course resulting in a second chamber whose size spiralled ever upwards

One sensible approach however could be to take together the votes cast at the last three general elections to arrive at a reasonable party balance. If adjusted after future elections, gradual change could be achieved whilst keeping the House at an appropriate size.

Rather than wallow in the ERS’s fanciful speculation, the government should support the efforts of the Lords themselves to sort out its size and desist form making any more appointments until that has happened.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords

Published 16th June 2013

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