Betty Boothroyd makes the case for Lords reform

This morning’s Radio 4  coverage of the oncoming debate on Lords reform made little attempt at balance.  They gave prominent coverage to opponent Betty Boothroyd.  A supporter may have been given airtime while I wasn’t listening – but if so they did not get a mention on the website.  But at least Baroness Boothroyd’s bluster gives supporters of reform plenty of ammunition.

Baroness Boothroyd, a former Labour MP and the House of Commons’s first (and only) female Speaker is treated as a bit of a national treasure – understandable given her remarkable life story, and the determination with which she climbed the greasy pole to celebrity.  She is deeply conservative, and loves all that fake tradition and flummery that the British Parliament wallows in.  But beyond this emotional attachment, she seems unable to give good reasons in their defence.

Her main point was that electing members of the upper house (whatever it would be called) would give it more power, and elevate its status to beyond that of a mere revising chamber that is not meant to get in the way of the Government and its whipped majority in the House of Commons.  She suggested that the reform would lead to the upper house challenging financial legislation, something which it is currently unable to do.  She also accused the reform’s proponents of not having thought things through, and insisted that it should be debated at length in parliament.

But this is mostly complete nonsense.  The reform bill does not propose to change the current powers of the upper house – which means that it would not have the ability to challenge financial legislation.  The primacy of the Commons is categorically included in the draft bill.  Debate on the floor of parliament is not grand dialectical process by which laws get improved through earnest challenge and debate – it’s a theatre for the pompous to spout off pre-conceived opinions without listening to anybody else’s.  The challenge and debate comes in the consultation process that surrounds the debate.  This has been extensive, both in this parliament and in various predecessors.  The arguments have been rehearsed many times, and solutions to the many problems devised.  Having hammered out a workable compromise it is now time to decide, subject to a bit more wheeling and dealing, perhaps.

But what Baroness Boothroyd showed was that she herself could not be bothered to find out about what the proposals actually were.  So what value does she contribute to the revising chamber that she defends, beyond a few deeply held prejudices?  The trouble with the House of Lords is that it is full of people like her – and not the valuable experts that its supporters claim.  What on earth is the point of it?  Why not just abolish it all together?

The is much to criticise in the Government’s reform proposals.  But they do deal with the two main weaknesses of the current house.  First it shrinks it to a sensible size, including the use of limited terms of office (rather staying until you drop dead, as now) .  Second it replaces patronage systems of appointment with an electoral process.  These two steps will help to professionalise it, and then make it rather more effective in its job of challenging and improving lower house legislation.  It may not succeed.  15 year non-renewable terms may mean that those elected just soak up the status and grandstand rather than doing any real work.  And Baroness Boothroyd’s fear that it may just get in the way of government without adding value is not itself complete nonsense, unlike the bluster with which supported it.  Being elected might give its members licence to be simply obstructive.

But it’s worth a try.  If it doesn’t work we can change it.  Or abolish it altogether.

3 thoughts on “Betty Boothroyd makes the case for Lords reform”

  1. I have been in favour of the House of Lords for a long time, although mine is a rather negative stance. The problem I have is with the House of Commons. For me, for all the bluster about free elections and democracy, it does not represent the British public in all it’s breadth and depth – in fact I see no checks to it becoming less and less representative as it is taken over by professional politicians, who know exactly how to play the system and fool the public at the same time.

    So when the House of Lords reform is carried out by the Commons and represented as a triumph of democracy, I feel angry and helpless. The professional politicians will win again – they always do.

    I can’t argue with the proposition that the current House of Lords is an inefficient and useless dinosaur, but when I hear that the Commons will reform it, I fear that it will be turned into another part of the cunning web the professional politicians are spinning in order to arrange everything to their own best advantage.

    I have just been reading a wikipedia article on the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” – and it quotes: “Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy.” Isn’t that just about it?

  2. Your scepticism when people shout out “democracy” is warranted. However in this case the House of Commons is distinctly unenthusiastic, exactly because they feel any elected upper chamber will undermine its claim to be the sole democratic authority. Most MPs are doing their best to bury the reform without actually catching the blame. The most enthusiastic supporters are the Lib Dems, a perpetual opposition party – though to their credit there are supporters from other parties who see merits in change. Its one of those things people promise to do without any real intention of delivering.

    The House of Lords is a rather convenient institution for the executive, who use it as a system of patronage. Those in government (like Tony Blair) soon lose their enthusiasm for reform. Appointments are used to make payoffs to donors or as part of internal party manoeuvres.

    Having said that the current institution does have a certain eccentric charm, which would be lost if the reform goes ahead. And I’m sure a number of highly effective people in the current institution (a small minority) would not get elected under the proposed system. And it would almost certainly be run by professional politicians – the only ones who have the skills and resources to be elected from the very large constituencies that would be used…though people like the Greens (and UKIP) would stand more chance of getting in. So yes it would be part of the cunning web – but less so than the current institution.

  3. The fact that, as one of my old history Profs once wrote, the total number of men eligible to sit in the House of Lords in the whole of the 18th Century was 1,003, makes the prospect of the current membership of the Lords soon passing that number reason enough to see reform cannot put off for another 10-20 years. Sadly, from what I saw of the debate today, the Labour front bench seem determined to combine with the Adullamites in the Tories to give Clegg a hard time. Understandable from a party political standpoint perhaps; I presume they take the view that they will lose no votes even if they end up stalling Lords reform whilst the LibDems might gain some from any sensible reform. The continuation of a source of patronage is just an added bonus.
    Finally the appaling standard of much of that part of the debate I saw makes one shudder at the thought of an un-guilotined passage.

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