Some things work, despite confounding all expectation and logic. And, in its present manifestation, one is Britain’s so-called Upper Chamber – or ‘The Other Place’, as MPs refer to it with quaint arcaneness – the House of Lords.
Long gone are the days when it was an exclusive club for geriatric members of the aristocracy, a God’s waiting room for barons of the shires to discuss pig breeding, the merits of single malt whisky, the high cost of maintaining a dominatrix and how the peasants were revolting, if only in terms of pong.
The hereditary dukes, earls, viscounts, etc and et al, were given the heave-ho from the red benches in 1999, leaving a rump of 92 nobs to be ‘working peers’ along with an assortment of odds and sods – generally ex-ministers and MPs, past their use-by dates – who’d been appointed life lordships.
The Lords’ job was to act as a check and balance to the Commons, to scrutinise Bills before they became law, iron out wrinkles in them and put the handbrake on government attempts to make a twerp of itself. And, though their remit is limited, for most practical purposes they’ve made a pretty decent fist of it.
For reasons claimed to be ‘furthering democracy’ the Liberals and their reincarnation, the Lib-Dems, have, for over a century, had a maniacal obsession with reforming the Lords or, better still, abolishing it in favour of an elected Senate. This, history-lovers may feel, is a bit rich, coming from a party whose greater leader, Lloyd George, made a fortune flogging aristocractic handles.
So, at a critical time when the world’s finances are going to Hades in a handcart and half the country is a swimming pool, today – as yesterday – the Commons expends valuable time and energy debating reform of the Upper Chamber, a subject we in the vulgar hoi polloi care as much about as blindfold bog-snorkelling.Not wishing to prejudge the vote, a rumoured revolt of up to 90 Tory backbenchers will join Labour and naysay the reform proposal – mainly that 80% of a new House of Lords will be elected (by who – who only know?) – and kill it dead, at least until the next time.
Because, if they succeed, it will scupper Nick Clegg’s earnest desire to usher in proportional representation (PR) via the back-door, since that is what the Lib-Dems have in mind for a reformed Lords.
Having failed to convince the Great British electorate in a 2011 referendum that AV (the alternative vote) is more equitable than a transparent, uncomplicated, first-past-the-post election system, Tricky Nicky is at it again, this time seeking to use the Lords as a template to usher in PR.
Politically speaking, I suppose you can’t blame him for trying. Because any form of PR favours mini parties, who can bank on seats round the Cabinet table, since the probability is that future General Elections will produce hung parliaments, so the Lib-Dems will hold a balance of power disproportionate to their votes (as they do now in the cobbled-together Tory-led coalition).
However much its supporters claim that PR is ‘more democratic’ it plainly isn’t, as many countries who’ve tried it discovered to their cost. It generally produces weaker government, giving rump parties, like Clegg’s ‘yellow-ties’, a whip-hand the electorate never envisaged.
That’s why I hope the rebels succeed tonight in overturning this Lords Reform Bill.
The Upper Chamber may not be perfect and it is, indeed, overloaded with ermined members (over 800 of them). But what threatens to replace it is hardly likely to be an improvement.
In other words, if it ain’t broken, why fix it?