Anyone not on the hard right can rejoice this week at the fact that the most pernicious Conservative plan of this parliament to date was blocked by the House of Lords. The bill to cut working tax credits was bankrupt, both economically and morally, and showed just how ideologically driven this government is. However, much as the left should be rejoicing at its failure, it is instead put in something of a quandary: an institution it has long opposed has just done a great service for the nation’s disadvantaged. I confess that during my time I have switched back and forth on the Lords a few times. I have, on occasion, weakly supported an elected House, but I have never been convinced. This year, however, I have fallen heavily on the side of keeping it appointed.
Why? Because, uncomfortable as it may be for the left/liberals, the fact is the Lords actually do a pretty good job. The House is the embodiment of One-Nation conservatism – a philosophy which I have more than a little sympathy for. It is frequently too conservative for my tastes on LGBT issues, assisted dying and a host of other social issues, but when it comes to inequality the Lords tends to be far more philanthropic and just than the Commons. In part, this is due to their role as a scrutinising chamber, which allows them to be more critical of the flaws in legislation which is based in ideology rather than pragmatism. However, another reason for this is that they do not have to face election, meaning they do not need to subscribe to the latest populist bashing of welfare, immigration etc.
So those are the good points about the Lords being unelected, would it being elected come with many negatives? Well, yes. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: if the Lords were elected, the Tax Credit legislation would have almost certainly passed this week. There are only two ways an elected upper chamber would turn out. 1) It mirrors the Commons 2) people use it as a protest vote and it’s the polar opposite. Both scenarios are as dire as each other. In scenario one, legislation gets rushed through parliament with no proper scrutiny. The leader of the Lords could be bullied by the PM very easily, who would, justly, claim that both Houses were elected by a popular mandate, and therefore both had a duty to implement government policy. Furthermore, any Lords rebellion would risk a full state party civil war and possible general election, so the Lords are far less likely to rebel. In this scenario, the vote on tax credits would have passed. In scenario two, the Houses are almost permanently deadlocked, like the US Congress and Senate. This would leave any government basically powerless to do anything, and would also, realistically, require an elected Head of State. This scenario leaves any government hamstrung, unable to enact any real changes however necessary they are, and gives whoever leads the Commons plenty of opportunity to claim the other party is obstructing them, disregards the needs of the country etc. In short, it is a recipe for constitutional crisis.
To be frank, I have no problem at all with an unelected house of experts. Yes there are many problems with the Lords, not least that too often the ‘experts’ are simply the Prime Minister’s mates. There are many reforms that need to be made in terms of pay, size and composition. Likewise, I don’t care what it’s called. For all I care we could rename ‘The People’s Chamber’ and have everyone address each other as comrade. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the function the Lords performs is actually a very useful and much needed one, and changing it to an elected House risks constitutional disaster. Perhaps it’s tiresome and conservative of me to say ‘Better the devil you know’, but the opposition of much of the left to the Lords appears to be more and more based in ideology rather than reality.