LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has recently been accused of “selling” peerages that give the holder the right to a seat in the House of Lords, Britain’s Upper House, which is not elected. The police have reportedly begun investigations into these allegations, which if proven would be a serious crime. But it is very difficult to prove such an accusation. Moreover similar accusations can be made against opposition parties. It is thus unlikely that any of the leaders of British political parties will go to prison.
The accusations began when the commission to vet the suitability for appointments to the House of Lords rejected some candidates proposed by the government on the grounds that they were not suitable and appeared to have only been nominated because they had lent substantial sums to the Labour Party in the last election.
One of the candidates had also been chairman of a company that had been awarded big contracts by government agencies. Gifts have to be declared but loans have hitherto been regarded as confidential even though it was clear that the lenders generally did not expect their loans to be repaid. Blair realized that his reputation had been tarnished and that he should take action to deal with the scandal.
A former senior civil servant was appointed to make proposals to clean up the way in which British political parties are funded and the government decided to announce the names of substantial lenders to the party.
All this should have been grist to the opposition Conservatives, but they kept their heads down as they too had received substantial loans, including some from individuals who wanted their names kept secret. In the past their treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, had given substantial sums and his nomination for a peerage was generally believed to have been for financial services to the party.
Various proposals to make political funding more transparent and less open to possible charges of electoral fraud or corruption are being considered. One proposal is to limit individual donations to say £10,000 or possibly £50,000, and to make public all gifts and loans. Another suggestion is that the amount of money that can be spent on a political campaign during a general election should be substantially reduced. Much of the money spent on political advertising is probably wasted and only fattens the pockets of the advertising agents.
The Conservative opposition have also suggested that the number of members of Parliament, which is considerably greater in terms of number of electors represented by a member than in other democratic countries, should be reduced, but Parliament members, especially in the ruling party, are reluctant to see their seats disappear. So this sensible suggestion is unlikely to be adopted.
They have also suggested that there should be state funding for political parties, the amount depending on the performance of the party at the last election. But this too has not found much favor. There is much skepticism among voters about political parties and most voters are reluctant to fund politics out of the pockets of British taxpayers, who regard their tax burden as already too high.
Blair has agreed to meet David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative opposition, in the hope that they can find a consensus. But this is doubtful. Cameron wants funding by all organizations, companies and unions, to be strictly limited. But the Labour Party has traditionally drawn a high proportion of its funds from the unions and there would be strong opposition in the party to any steps that undermined these links.
This controversy has highlighted the government’s failure to complete the reform of the composition and powers of the House of Lords. The vast majority of hereditary peers have had their right to a seat in the Lords revoked. The main work of the Lords in scrutinizing legislation passed by the House of Commons has thus fallen to the so-called working peers. Many of these refer to themselves as cross-benchers, i.e., peers who do not formally belong to any party and cannot therefore be induced to support a particular party line.
It is an interesting and significant fact that, since the hereditary peers have been expelled, the House of Lords has caused more trouble to the government than in any other period since the war. The Lords have pretty consistently opposed the more authoritarian measures of what has become an increasingly authoritarian government. This has irritated Blair, who would like to reduce still further the powers of the Lords to amend and delay primary legislation. He dislikes the idea that a substantial number of peers should be elected, fearing that this would undermine the primacy of the Commons. In particular he wants to assert the right of the government to force through the Lords any legislation that has been trailed in the party’s pre-election manifesto.
It will be difficult to find any consensus on reform of the composition and powers of the British Upper House. One reason for this is the contempt that Blair has shown for elements of Britain’s unwritten constitution, in particular the cavalier way in which he tried to abolish the post of lord chancellor and impose changes in the way judges are selected and appointed.
The British electoral law needs to be updated to prevent electoral fraud in the way in which postal voters are registered. Fortunately the British constituency boundary commission on the whole works well, but as it only takes account of population changes after they have taken place it is always behind the times. As population has moved from inner cities to suburban areas this means that inner cities, which tend to vote Labour, are over-represented. Even so British constituency boundaries more correctly represent population changes here than those in Japan and there is none of the appalling gerrymandering of constituency boundaries that perverts democratic processes in the United States.
The issue of party and political funding is a universal one for all democratic countries, including Japan. Transparency is a paramount requirement.