Last Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech saw Britain’s hereditary monarch announcing government plans to effectively abolish the House of Lords, the British Parliament’s unelected second chamber. It is hard to imagine that the queen did not feel the irony. But she may still have the last laugh, as proposals to move to a largely elected upper house are creating potentially insurmountable divisions within Britain’s coalition government.
The Queen’s Speech, outlining the government’s legislative priorities for the next parliamentary session, was delivered less than a week after local elections that saw both coalition partners suffer extensive losses. Over 400 Conservative councilors were defeated, causing the party to lose control of district, county and city authorities across the country. The Conservatives’ junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, fared even worse, coming a humiliating fourth in London’s mayoral race behind the Green Party.
The Lib Dem and Tory losses reflect growing dissatisfaction with two years of government austerity that has not only failed to kick-start the British economy, but last month plunged the country back into recession. If last week’s election results were repeated in a general election, Prime Minister David Cameron would suffer the same fate as President Nicolas Sarkozy, his conservative counterpart in France.
Although opinion polls show that a majority of the British public support reforming the House of Lords, in the current economic climate, constitution change is a low priority for most voters. Senior Conservatives are demanding to know why Cameron prioritized Lords’ reform in the Queen’s Speech when voters want ministers to focus on job creation and economic growth. Many Conservative members of Parliament blame their party’s poor showing in local elections on the prime minister’s lack of attention to the issues that really matter to voters. But at present, unity within the coalition is more important to the survival of the government — and to Cameron’s position as prime minister — than unity within his own party.
Electoral support for the Lib Dems has more than halved since they entered into coalition with the Conservatives. In one Edinburgh council election last week, the Lib Dem candidate polled fewer votes than a man dressed as a penguin. Some commentators now talk of a Lib Dem wipeout at the next general election in 2015. To keep the coalition together until then, Cameron must compensate his coalition partners for their present and future losses with concessions on key Lib Dem policies.
Lords’ reform has been high on the political wish list of British Liberals since the last Liberal majority government lost power over a century ago — largely due to a clash with the Lords. Constitutional change was a major Lib Dem demand when the coalition deal was struck in May 2010. Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is particularly keen to press ahead with Lords’ reform, as British voters rejected his plans for a new electoral system in a referendum last May.
Clegg took the lead in developing the government’s draft bill on Lords’ reform. Published in April, the draft bill recommends a 300-seat chamber, with 80 percent of members directly elected for 15-year, nonrenewable terms. The remaining 20 percent would be chosen by an appointments commission. Twelve Church of England bishops would sit ex officio.
Few deny that the Lords needs reform, but Clegg’s draft bill fails to address significant issues, in particular how the House of Commons will stay supreme once the Lords becomes largely elected. Embarrassingly for Clegg, some of the most intense criticism comes from members of the parliamentary committee set up to consider the draft bill. Dissenting members on the committee took the unusual step of issuing an alternative report. Speaking at the press conference to launch the report, Baroness Shepherd, a former Conservative education secretary, said it was “an absurd proposition” to create an elected Lords without considering the precise relationship between the new Lords and the House of Commons. The government believes that the Parliament Act — introduced in 1911 to exert the supremacy of the Commons over the Lords — will continue to hold after the Lords becomes elected. But the legitimacy of Parliament Act rests on the premise that the Commons is the only elected chamber. The committee’s report also questions whether peers elected for 15-year nonrenewable terms would be accountable to the public. Finally, the report raises objections to a Lords elected by proportional representation, something that was rejected in a referendum in May 2011.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Conservative committee member Eleanor Laing accuses Clegg of trying to sneak proportional representation in though the back door of Lords’ reform. Lange also questions whether British taxpayers would be willing to pay for another 300 elected politicians. Public anger with politicians of all parties over the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal has not abated. Although exact figures have not been published, it is estimated that the cost of an elected Lords would be more than twice that of the existing system. Lange and her committee colleagues argue that Lords’ reform should be put to the public in a referendum, something that the Labour Party also demands. Clegg counters that there is no need for a referendum, as all three main political parties supported reform in their manifestos at the last election.
To get Lords’ reform through the House of Commons, the government may have to concede on a referendum. Even then, victory is not assured, as many Conservative backbenchers have already declared their intention to revolt against the government with or without a referendum. The reform bill will also have to pass the House of Lords, a situation in which the turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas.
Political squabbling over Lords’ reform will only serve to reinforce public hostility to politics and politicians. Britain deserves a higher level of debate in the 21st century.
Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan.