Monday, 6 August 2012

House of Lords reform: a real alternative

With Lords "reform" all but dead in the water, its time for UKIP to take the initiative on the subject.

The Liberal Party first broke the House of Lords at the turn of the last century with the passage of the Parliament Act which removed the ability of the House if Lords to stop bad legislation by allowing the Commons to pass laws with the Lords' agreement if they disagreed three times in one Parliament.

The Labour Party broke it even more by removing a large number of experienced, independently-minded Peers from the upper house and replacing them with career politicians appointed on the basis of their usefulness and loyalty to their party.

The Lib Dems tried to break it even more not long ago by trying to replace it with an elected House of Lords which would be as sleaze-ridden, impotent and whipped to within an inch of is life as the Commons. The attempt was scuppered by the Tories not so much out of any ideological standpoint but because Lords are more "their sort of people".

UKIP has conflicting policies on Lords reform which need to be addressed as part of the ongoing policy review that has seen the thankfully short-lived enforced Britishness policy superceded by the new devolution policy that's going to be unveiled at the next party conference which would see the House of Lords replaced with an elected federal British Parliament.

In an ideal world we would keep the House of Lords even with a fully federal government but in this day and age the electorate is unlikely to accept more layers of government no matter what the benefits are. Losing the House of Lords is unfortunate but it's a price worth paying for real national democracy.

Support for devolution is overwhelming in all four member states of the UK and given the opportunity to turn that support into votes, most would vote yes to turning the British Parliament into an English Parliament and the House of Lords into an elected federal British Parliament. However, you should always have a fallback position in case things don't turn out as expected. If the House of Lords did continue to exist after the creation of an English Parliament then how can the system be reformed to make it work better?

The main problem with the House of Commons is that party politics gets in the way of the democratic process. It is a rare occurrence for an MP to defy the party whips and those that do are punished severely, losing jobs and facing suspension or even expulsion from their party for doing so. The fraud and sleaze is still a problem even after being caught with their fingers in the till but it doesn't generally prevent the democratic process from running it's course. An elected House of Lords would be subject to exactly the same systemic failures that the Commons is and far from improving democracy, it would instead take away any semblance of opposition to the Commons for much of the time because it is inconceivable that the electorate would elect a Tory majority to the Commons and a Labour majority to the Lords and staggering the elections would only produce an effective opposition for half a term - two years - at best. Imagine Tony Blair's 10 year rule without the House of Lords stopping internment, investigating the illegal war against Iraq, protecting the right to trial by jury, opposing control orders and banning the use of evidence obtained through torture. With a Labour majority in the upper house most of our centuries-old rights and liberties would have been abolished and the England that Orwell warned of in 1984 would be a lot closer.

So if the answer isn't electing the upper house, how can it be made more accountable and how can it be done whilst sticking to UKIP's principles? The answer lies in the direct democracy policy introduced during Lord Pearson's brief stint as leader where Swiss-style referenda would be held on contentious issues. Any piece of proposed legislation that can cause the Commons and Lords to disagree to the extent that no compromise can be found three times in less than a year surely qualifies as contentious so why should it be left to 600 politicians to decide what's right when a thousand peers say they're completely wrong and that their viewpoint is almost entirely without merit?

So here is the answer: restore the hereditary peers, remove the politically appointed life peers who serve no function other than providing loyal lobby fodder for the party that put them there and amend the Parliament Act so that instead of the Commons having the ability to ignore the Lords when they can't agree the decision is instead made by the electorate via a binding referendum. This means the composition of the upper house is an accident of birth rather than a political stitch-up and the decision-making process is far more accountable to the electorate than simply choosing the least bad candidate on offer every four years in the futile hope that they will have the balls to defy the whips when it comes to important decisions.

UKIP should continue to promote the idea of a federal UK and replacing the House of Lords with an elected federal British Parliament as it is part of what is by far the most progressive set of policies on constitutional reform of any party, not to mention being popular with the electorate. But we should always have a contingency plan and on House of Lords reform, this is better than anything anyone else has to offer.