The house of lords reforms: the democratic contradiction

The question of reforming the House of Lords is one which has been floating around in main-stream politics for the past hundred years, without any government ever really making the final decisive step to make it an elected or partly elected body. In this last year however, these reforms seem closer than ever, with the Liberal Democrats pushing for such reforms in order to make the UK a more ‘democratic’ place, but the question needs to be asked is whether making the second chamber an elected body would actually make the UK a more democratic place.

A major problem which faces politics today is voter fatigue. For this reason, many people feel that by electing the House of Lords, all it would do is increase apathy and cause low turnouts. This as we saw at the PCC elections recently, brings the legitimacy of the entire process into question which in itself contradicts the main reason for having an elected second camber, which is to increase the chamber’s democratic legitimacy. However, it is not always clear whether there will be low or high turnouts. It is for this reason; many people would argue that worrying over whether voters will fatigue or not, is not a good enough reason to obstruct the course of democracy. Equally, it is also thought that if everyone was allowed to vote, and only one person did, that makes it more legitimate and democratic than if no one is allowed to. However, what is for certain is that voters over time will fatigue if they are continually having to vote on an increasing amount of referendums, MEP’s, MP’s, by-elections and Lords. This in turn, could bring down the whole legitimacy of the UK’s entire political system because of the wide-spread apathy, which has been further inflamed by elections of The House of Lords. If the democratic status of the Lords were to be increased through the use of elections, it may challenge the Commons’ authority. This admittedly could be seen in a positive light since it could end executive tyranny, keeping in check an already and increasingly powerful executive. However, if the government did not have a majority in the Lords, like the current one, this could cause paralysis, potentially causing rivalry and gridlock between the two houses, leading to ineffective and dithering governance.

It is also argued that by electing the Lords, you could eliminate members who represent certain groups of society, or specialists in certain fields. Like, for example, Lord Alan Sugar, whose business experience and knowledge, is of the upmost importance and help to the Lords, and by electing the Lords, many of these people may not want to stand for election, subsequently causing a loss of highly valuable expertise and knowledge, of which, one could argue, the Commons does not possess the same amount. The counter to that being, is that there is a poor balance and representation of groups in society in the Lords, like women, young people and ethnic groups. This being said, even after elections, descriptive representation is still a problem because there is no way of ensuring that the candidates represent all areas of society, since you can only elect those standing for election. We can see this by looking at the Commons, where representation is still a big problem with many minorities and groups of society feeling wholly un-represented despite there being elections, subsequently suggesting that elections do not ensure the full representation of society. It is also said, that descriptive representation is much easier to achieve through appointment rather than election.

All of these arguments contribute to one main factor which many would argue is the main problem with electing the House of Lords. The problem is that of primacy. This is the question which would be thrown up in the case of an elected Lords, which is that if both Houses are elected, then there could be serious ambiguity over which House should take primacy. This is because if they are both fully elected, then they surely have the same amount of democratic legitimacy, which then must mean that they have, or should have the same amount of democratic authority. So with this taken into account, if one House takes primacy over the other, whilst having in theory, the same amount of democratic legitimacy and democratic authority, then this, quite rightly, could be seen as not very democratic. This once again, contradicts the whole point of having an elected Lords- which was to improve its legitimacy and therefore democracy in the UK.

All of this leaves one with the feeling that the idea of electing the House of Lords is faulted from the start, because it is meant to improve democracy and legitimacy but in the end, a fully elected second chamber could contradict those exact two things.

By Mike Fane Creator of Current Affairs Discussions [] @FANEMW