The issues surrounding Brexit have put the Government, as well as British politics as a whole, under the spotlight.
But one institution that has been under perhaps greater scrutiny than ever is the House of Lords. It’s vastly different demographic compared to the House of Commons has put it at odds with the current Government on many issues. In fact in the 2015-2016 session of Parliament, the Government was defeated 60 times (the highest number since the 2005-2006 session). In the 2016-2017 sessions it has lost 16 times! So, as stated before, it has been thrust into the limelight.
More recently however, the House of Lords has been debating the decision on article 50. The demographics in the Lords made it a potential thorn in the side of Brexiteers due to its high number of Liberal Democrat peers, as well as some more personal interests of certain Lords especially those with business backgrounds. These defeats and this potential thorn has led even some conservatives to call for a House of Lords reform, which is usually a position held by the progressive left, especially the Green party. So how does this historic house work? And does it truly need reform?
Fun fact: The House of Lords’ full official name is “The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled”. But for the sake of all our collective sanity lets keep calling it the House of Lords. In its current format it is a house made up of 805 peers with 252 Tories, 202 Labour Peers and even 102 Liberal Democrats with 178 peers known as “Crossbenchers” or without proper party affiliation. On top of this, nearly every major political party in the UK has a peer or several, as well as 26 bishops who sit with the government. Their role is to scrutinise bills pushed through the Commons and amend or agree to them before they are passed on to get royal assent and become a law.
According to all known Government sources and website materials the membership of the House of Lords is drawn from the peerage and other areas such as Bishops as previously mentioned. The Lords Spiritual are 26 bishops in the established Church of England. Membership was once an entitlement of all hereditary peers, other than those in the peerage of Ireland, but under the House of Lords Act 1999, the right to membership was restricted to 92 hereditary peers. Very few of these are female since most hereditary peerages can only be inherited by men. While the House of Commons has a defined 650-seat membership, the number of members in the House of Lords is not fixed. There are currently 805 sitting Lords. The House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament to be larger than its respective lower house.
This has made it subject to scrutiny before such as during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and more specifically the House of Lords reform bill put forwards by Nick Clegg in 2012 that was abandoned due to Conservative opposition that would have seen the House of Lords changed in several key areas such as beginning to see the introduction of elected members in the house.
When looking at other western democracy such as the United States it is clear to see why the idea of a second elected chamber is not alien. An opportunity to elect members midway through a governmental term in theory allows for a greater chance for political interest and engagement and allows the people to hold their leaders to account on a larger scale than is currently available. Especially in the current UK political climate, we have seen by-elections take huge swings following Brexit so a second elected chamber could be huge in allowing the people to have a greater say in how their country is run.
However, there is a danger with this system. We have seen gridlock become a key issue in the US political system and has led to even greater partisanship and the rise of populism in the form of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. This may be in part due to the two party nature of the United States and a proportional representation system in the UK would lead to a broader spectrum of politicians being able to influence policy and would potentially lead to votes based on coalitions in this second chamber as opposed to majority rule as seen in the House of Commons.
What is clear is that when it comes to the Upper Chamber the issue is divisive, difficult and one with no clear outcome. Benefits of an unelected House of Lords allows it to avoid issue around party loyalty as it does not have to fight its own elections and can instead focus on holding the Commons to account. However, by not being elected it does not accurately represent the people it is governing nor does it reflect a true democracy that perhaps the modern world requires.