Lords in limbo: apply the Salisbury Convention in spirit as well as letter, please

Lords reform has been fairly heavily trailed for some time now, and we’ve had a bit more confirmation that the White Paper is on the way in the past couple of days.  I’ll be glad to see the Government make headway on this: despite the outcome of the AV referendum, Lords reform has been a longstanding commitment from politicians of all parties and the evidence has always been pretty clear that a majority of the public believe our second chamber should be (at least predominantly) elected.

Personally, I think this really should be a fairly cut-and-dried issue.  Members of the House of Lords are not primarily independent experts, sources of warnings or nods to tradition.  These are all understandable things to want, and we ought to think much harder about how we integrate expertise into our legislative process, but they are not the primary role of the people who vote in the second chamber.  They are, first and foremost, legislators – and legislators whose record of changing Bills and therefore policy is significant and growing.  If we want expertise, we should make sure we have it in the right committees and the right debates for the right issues.  (Could some experts even sit on Select Committees, in the Commons and in a new second chamber, as non-voting, co-opted members?)

The people who actually do make our laws should be democratically accountable.  In an ideal world, therefore, we should finish up with nothing less than a 100% elected second chamber.  I’m relatively relaxed about the finer points of STV versus open lists (lists where you can choose a candidate within a party list rather than just opting for a party): so long as it’s a proportional system where voters don’t just have to tick a party box, I’ll settle for it.

With regard to the likely plans to come from the Government: I’m not ecstatic about the idea of 15-year terms and I have fairly serious reservations about single terms – I think it’s an important principle that legislators should have to at least consider the possibility that they might want to face the electorate again, and if we’re serious about democracy then we have to accept that that requires accountability.  Electing by thirds (or halves, or quarters) is sensible, though: our new Senate should be a more continuous body than the House of Commons, and a combination of PR and staggered elections would help to make sure it fits the bill.  In terms of dealing with the current members of the Lords, I think an arrangement along the lines of the Cranborne deal might make sense – which would mean that we’d have 200 left in 2015, 100 left in 2020 and none by 2025 (when the full complement of Senators would have been elected).

But I’m enough of a pragmatist to understand that, if you want Lords reform at all, you can’t let the best be the enemy of the good.  The fact that people haven’t recognised that is exactly why Lords reform hasn’t happened, even with a Labour government who said they wanted it in charge for 13 years.  So if Nick Clegg can even secure an 80% elected second chamber, even with twelve voting bishops (though the latter will cause me real pain …) and even with all the other peers staying until 2025, then I’ll see that as a major step forwards and a real achievement.  Of course, that depends on his Coalition partners voting it through.  Whether the Conservatives will choose to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Coalition Agreement remains to be seen: if they choose not to, no doubt Liberal Democrats will feel even more betrayed than many of them do already.

The other question is how fiercely the House of Lords will resist being reformed.  Everyone seems to agree that they will fight tooth and nail against reform.  I do appreciate that, when people find themselves on the red benches, they have an uncanny knack of seeing the wisdom of allowing the nation to carry on benefiting from their wisdom.  The Cross Benches’ reluctance is understandable, given that there would undoubtedly be pretty few (if any) of them in a 100% elected second chamber and that their role would inevitably be questioned in an 80% elected one.  In any case, the difficulties the Lords could cause for reform, and for large areas of Government business, are very substantial indeed.

It’ll eventually be a question of whether the Coalition has the political will to push change through, whether peers like it or not.  But one thing I really don’t understand is: on what basis do the Lords think they have any right to derail this legislation at all?  All three main party manifestos called for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.  All parties have been reasonably clear, with some wobbling from the Conservatives in the past, that the second chamber would need to be elected by some sort of proportional system.  In 2005, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also called for a wholly or majority elected second chamber too.

It seems to me that, if a pledge won the support of both parties in the Coalition when they went to the country (as well as the Opposition and a number of the smaller parties), we have a pretty clear case of the Salisbury Convention in action.  I can see why the Lords might query some Coalition compromises in that regard: no one got to vote for the Coalition Agreement.  But on this one, I just can’t see where the ambiguity lies.  It was proposed: it was in the manifestos: it’s now in the process of being turned into a White Paper, and hopefully a Bill.  If there’s any defence, it’s surely of the most technical kind.  Where exactly did the Salisbury Convention include a bit saying the Lords didn’t have to apply it to their own seats?