Monday, October 23, 2006

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.


Blogger dreadnought said...

I can't believe the Labour government has left it 9 years before it makes any sort of meaningful parliamentary reform (apart from removing most hereditary peers) and when it does it comes up with this half-hearted shambles. This process should have started on 2nd May 1997, it should now be complete and we should now have a fully elected 2nd chamber.

As for the Head of State, as much as I personally would like rid of the monarchy, I can't see it ever happening. A fully elected Westminster parliament will have to suffice.

5:09 pm  
Blogger politaholic said...

Personally, I prefer republicanism, unicameralism (and the use of STV for Commons elections), a written constitution (incorporating a Bill of Rights), a Supreme Court, much stronger Select Committees, and the transfer of most royal prerogative powers to the Commons. Absolutely utopian and unlikely to happen. Then again, "ever" is a long time. Who knows? I suspect that the Commons will opt for a predominantly elected Lords, that the regional list system will be approved, and I doubt that the timetable will be speeded-up. That's the reality of the UK's "flexible" constitution: sclerosis.

9:22 am  
Blogger politaholic said...

Incidentally, this government has been the most radical vis-a-vis constitutional change since the last Liberal Government. That itself is a measure of how difficult constitutional change is in this country.

9:28 am  
Blogger dreadnought said...

I don't think the government has had the courage for more radical change. It has had and still has a majority big enough in the commons to drive through real constitutional change and yet all we get is Jack Straw going cap in hand to get agreement from the Tory Party. As if they are going to want major reforms? It is in their interests to keep the status quo, that is why they are called conservatives. A written constitution, bill of rights, supreme court etc, etc, in fact everything you have said, should now be in place and operating. The Labour Party might not get another opportunity like this for years.

9:50 am  
Blogger politaholic said...

Perhaps the problem is not so much the constitutional machinery. As you say with a Commons majority they could drive through change. A Government with a big overall majority can, in theory, pretty much do anything. Maybe the problem is a deeply conservative political culture (common to politicians and to most of the electorate)of which an irrational reverence for the UK's obsolete constitutional machinery is a part, and to which the Labour Party has always subscribed. I agree that Lords reform is one clear example of a policy which the polls say is popular with the electorate and where more should have been done.

11:39 am  
Blogger dreadnought said...

"Maybe the problem is a deeply conservative political culture (common to politicians and to most of the electorate)of which an irrational reverence for the UK's obsolete constitutional machinery is a part, and to which the Labour Party has always subscribed." - I think you have hit the nail on the head

3:47 pm  

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