Straw in Spamalot
This morning’s newspapers report on a leaked 18-page memo presented by Jack Straw (the Leader of the House of Commons) to the cross-party working group on Lords reform on October 12. It is to be followed by a White Paper in November, and a Commons vote in January, so presumably this is a kite-flying exercise. Straw is apparently proposing that 50% of Lords be elected by proportional representation (it is unclear what system he favours, but it sound like the closed regional list system used for electing MEP’s). The Lords would be smaller (450 instead of the current 751); the remaining 92 hereditary peers would be removed; life peerages would be ended with peers serving a single non-renewable term equal to three Commons terms (a maximum of 15 years, but more likely to be about 12 years); and there will be quotas for women and ethnic-minority groups. The reforms are to be phased-in gradually: there are to be redundancy packages to encourage existing peers to retire with 80 peers elected at each of the next three elections. On this timetable it would be around 2020 before nearly 50% of peers are elected peers. The longer term of office of peers (as compared to MP’s) and the fairly low proportion of elected peers (50%) are evidently designed to meet the standard objection to a wholly elected Lords: that it would acquire the same democratic legitimacy as the Commons and that this could lead to legislative “gridlock”. Conversely, there are several objections to Straw’s proposals: 50% is a low proportion for those who are more “democratically-minded”; the use of the (closed) regional list system gives too much power to party leaders (who decide who appears on the list and in what position) and too little power to voters (who cannot choose between individual candidates); and the time-scale for reform is too long. The irony of all this is that it will probably lead to a Lords whose composition is pretty much the same as it is now: recycled politicians, party donors, and assorted grandees, most of them elevated via the patronage of party leaders. And so Britain limps along in the twenty-first century: with an hereditary head of state, hereditary peers (for the moment), unelected peers (for ever), a disproportional electoral system for the Commons (and a government for which only about 20% of the electorate voted), and the powers of the “royal prerogative” vested in the Prime Minister (not so much “presidential” as “monarchical”). Only 19% of the Commons are women and only a handful are ethnic-minority MP’s. The influence in public life of those from a public school/Oxbridge background is still hugely disproportionate. There is an established Church and a ludicrous and antiquated honours system (“Order of the British Empire”, et al). There is no written constitution embodying individual rights immune to statutory intervention (unless the treaties of the European Union serve that purpose). There is discomfiture with Europe and widespread Europhobia, and a stance of pre-emptive servility towards the United States (sucking-up to the biggest boy in the playground). Democracy? It’s more like Spamalot.