Lib-Dem-logoWith depressing predictability, many people’s response to the concerns a lot of Liberal Democrat members have raised about the return of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive has been ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ It’s also interesting to note that ‘shut up and deliver leaflets‘ has now evolved into ‘go and do some phone canvassing’. This is of course mixed in with ‘don’t you know there’s a by-election on’ and ‘talking about this just gives us bad publicity’ to try and shut down any debate by blaming everyone else for the bad things.

It’s an interesting attempt at political judo: trying to make it look like it’s those people complaining about the Lords putting Chris Rennard on the FE are the ones in the wrong, rather than those who’ve actually made the decision. It feels to me very much like people who misunderstand free speech – yes, you have the right to say what you like, or elect whoever you choose, but that doesn’t free you from the consequences of your actions. Imagine if Tim Farron used his slot at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Cameron if he could tell him who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong. He’s perfectly entitled to ask that, and as leader he can choose the subject of his questions, but he’d have to face the consequences of that choice.

This is the situation the Lords group – or, at least, the 40-odd of them who voted for Rennard – are in. They’ve made their decision according to the rules they have and in accordance with the power they have to appoint a member to the FE. Having seen the decision they’ve made, a large chunk of people in the rest of the party have pointed out that it’s a really bad decision and the response hasn’t been to try and explain why they think it’s a good decision, but to complain that people are daring to criticise it. Hiding behind ‘there are more important things you should be doing’ and ‘you’re making the party look bad, go and deliver leaflets as penance’ is quite a depressing way to try and avoid a debate and shift the blame for the effects of a decision onto those who didn’t make it.

Too many people forget that liberalism is about the freedom to make decisions and act, but that freedom comes with responsibility for the consequences of your actions. No one acts in a vacuum or makes decisions that are void of consequences and to assume that you can do whatever you want without facing criticism when you get it wrong is to demand to be removed from all consequences and be unaccountable in the way you exercise your power. Unaccountable power is something liberalism opposes, and it’s those who are trying to get everyone to move on and just accept it that are being illiberal here.

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The sin of pride: We can’t afford a smug Chancellor – George Osborne’s policies are too short-term to protect the British economy when the next crash comes.
The 1992 Olympic Bid – In a move that made a lot more sense then than it appears to in hindsight, Birmingham bid for the 1992 Olympics. The Brumpic blog has a lot more about the bid.
Dan Hannan and Owen Jones are both wrong on Portugal – Someone who actually understands Portuguese politics explains why there hasn’t been a coup there, and how partisan commentators are misrepresenting the normal political process to score points.
The Lords and tax credits: fact and myth – Meg Russell of UCL’s Constitution Unit explains the actual position of the House of Lords and its powers, which is different from that assumed by many commentators.
Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse centralises power and devolves blame – From a Labour perspective, but explains very well how the Government’s current devolution proposals are about extending the control of the TReasury, not giving genuine power to regions.

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eyelordsThat image is from the latest Private Eye, but it’s echoing something that’s been all over the right wing of the internet in the last few days, as a harrumph of commentators and keyboard warriors have declared themselves to be shocked beyond all measure that members of the House of Lords have voted against the Government. Suddenly, people who not so long ago were defending the hereditary principle in Lords appointments are now solemnly proclaiming that members of the Lords daring to have opinions is the gravest of constitutional crises. Peak silliness comes in this article by William Hague in which he presents himself as some great scholar of the British constitution while completely forgetting that he was Tory leader at the time Lord Strathclyde declared convention dead and claimed the right for the Lords to vote down statutory instruments.

(On an aside, it’s interesting how rarely countries that actually have written constitutions tend to have constitutional crises, compared to how often they’re threatened in Britain…)

The other common theme in this week’s torrent of bloviation – and features in both Private Eye and Hague’s column – is the implication that there’s something especially illegitimate about Liberal Democrat lords daring to have opinions counter to the government’s. (For all the resistance some people have to electing the Lords, the zeal they occasionally show for the representatives in there to reflect the results of an election is odd) What gets neglected in this – and in the Eye’s quote especially – is any mention of what happened in 2012. There’s a reason Farron’s quote comes from then: it’s because that’s when the Liberal Democrats in government were trying to reform the House of Lords to make it elected. However, thanks to the mutual ambivalence of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the House of Lords Reform Bill died in the Commons. If Cameron and the Conservatives had shown the same desire for Lords reform then as they do now, we probably wouldn’t be facing the situation we’re in now.

To be frank, I think there are too many Liberal Democrat Lords in Parliament. There are also too many Tory, Labour, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, UUP, DUP and crossbench Lords as well because in my view, any number of unelected Lords sitting in Parliament greater than zero is wrong. That’s why I don’t want to reform the Lords, I want to abolish it and replace it with a much better upper house/Senate. As far as I’m aware, that view – or variations on it to similar ends – is held by most members of the Liberal Democrats.

So yes, Liberal Democrats want to see the House of Lords reformed or replaced, and will happily work with others to make that happen if they want it. However, we’ve been waiting a hundred years or more to see that elected upper house come about and while abstentionism may work as a tactic for some, most conventional political parties seek to work within the systems as they are currently constituted, with most people understanding that working within a system doesn’t mean that you can’t also seek to change that system. All governments need to be challenged and scrutinised, and while the House of Lords might not be the best way of achieving that, it’s what exists within the system at present.

At the moment, the Conservative complaints are sounding very much like ‘we were promised an elective dictatorship, how dare you try and stop us!’ and the Strathclyde review (with irony not yet being dead, the man who declared the convention on statutory instruments dead is the natural choice to lead it) appears to be designed to try and strip away some more of what few brakes on executive authority there are in the current system. I want to see a system where we have two elected chambers in Parliament that are both capable of holding the Government to account in different ways, but until such time as we get to that point, there’s no nobility in refusing to act because the current system isn’t perfect.

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House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneAs madcap, back-of-an-envelope schemes to reform the Lords are all the rage right now, I thought I’d use the opportunity to set out how I’d reform it. I may have done that before on this blog, but why not set it out once more just because I can.

Quite simply, I’d get rid of it and replace it with a Senate. This new Senate would have around 300 members, each elected to a single 12-year term and then barred from seeking re-election to it. 100 members would be elected every four years, giving us a chamber that’s constantly being renewed but still possesses experience. Elections would be conducted by STV in constituencies based on nations, regions or counties that would elect at least three members at each election. STV and constituencies that size would hopefully encourage a wider range of representation and people being elected as individuals, rather than from a party list.

(There’d be 100 new senators elected at the first election, with 200 of the existing Lords making up the balance of the chamber, with 100 of them stepping down after the second wave of Senate elections and the final 100 being replaced after the third completed the first Senate election cycle. How those remaining Lords are selected is something parties and Lords can agree amongst themselves – existing Lords would also be eligible to stand for election to the Senate.)

The Senate itself would keep the current Lords role of scrutinising the Government and revising legislation, but I’d also like to see it take up the role of long-term reviews of different subjects, structured to take the four years between elections. Subjects for reviews would be chosen when the new senators arrive, with detailed reports and conclusions given at the end of a proper process of investigation, review and deliberation.

One complaint about moving to an all-elected upper house is the supposed loss of expertise caused by removing the crossbench peers. I have some sympathy for this view, but I also don’t think there’s such a thing as a general purpose expert. We have far too many examples of people who are experts in one field making a fool of themselves when they venture into others (we could call it the Dawkins Effect, perhaps) to think that appointing someone to have a view on everything because they’re experts at one thing is a good idea.

That said, I do think there is a role for bringing in experts on specific subjects to improve the quality of debate and scrutiny. I would propose that every committee and long-term review of the Senate would have the power to co-opt a number of expert members. These would be full members of the committees or reviews of which they’re part, with the same rights as any other member within that committee but they would not be full members of the Senate itself. I would suggest that they have the full rights to speak and participate in the debates of the main chamber but without any voting rights there. I’d suggest that they would be appointed to four-year terms, with consideration needing to be given as to whether they could be reappointed after that, and if they’d then be eligible to stand for election to the Senate as a full member if they wish.

The way I see it, we do need a second chamber in Parliament but that chamber needs to have a defined role, be clearly a secondary chamber but also have the legitimacy of being elected. I think this proposal achieves that, which means the likelihood of it ever coming to pass is slim.


House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneMark Pack has news of a call for any Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords to be used to bring more diversity to the Upper House.

However, I’m reminded of a suggestion I made a couple of years ago, and want to develop that further. What we should do as a party is quite simple: announce that we’re only appointing women to be Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until we have parity in our group there. Obviously, I’d like to see the Lords abolished and replaced, but until such time (at least five years, as things stand) as that happens we should be taking steps to make our representation within there as representative.

I’d also suggest something else: our selected representatives should be people who’ve never been in Parliament before. Too much of the House of Lords consists of what’s little more than a comfy retirement home for ex-MPs (including those rejected by the electorate) and we should be casting our net much wider if we want to create a radical and diverse group in the Lords. Just putting more former MPs in there doesn’t do anything to promote a wider range of voices in the Lords, and we should be taking what few opportunities we have to do things differently.

Solving the problems of the House of Lords and political party funding at the same time

For just £50, you too could sit on these benches.

For just £50, you too could sit on these benches.

So, the last time I wrote about the House of Lords, it didn’t spark a widespread movement to abolish it, and from the look of this year’s election manifestos, there’ll be no attempt to do so over the next few years.

Which means it’s time for me to come up with a new idea, and I think this is a good one because it provides us with a number of things:

  • A new way to appoint members of the Lords
  • A way to encourage more people to donate money to political parties
  • And, a way to make explicit what’s always been implicit in appointing Lords
  • My system is quite simple. Any donation over £50 would have to be made through a central bureau, which would record the donation and pass it on to the intended recipient. Donations could be made online, and arrangements could also be made for donations to be made through the post or at certain banks and post offices. Meanwhile, every year, a House of Lords Appointment Commission would determine how many vacancies there were for the Lords that year, given the number of members who had died, retired or been removed over the past twelve months. The Appointments Commission would also determine how many of the new peers needed to represent each party, based on its current strength in the Lords and the number of votes it had received at the last national election.

    Then, every person who had made an official donation to a party in that time would be given one entry into a Lords Lottery for every £50 they’d donated. Each party entitled to a number of appointees to the Lords would then have their nominees chosen at random from the people who had donated to it. Parties who did not make the threshold to be allocated direct seats in the draw would be placed into a draw for at least one peerage in each year, thus ensuring there was a motivation to donate to them.

    With this system we recognise the traditions of the House of Lords and ensure appointment is still linked to how much you can donate to a political party, but we add that element of chance to ensure that every donor has a chance of an appointment, and that even the smallest party could get someone appointed to Parliament to life to speak for them. Now you may say that a randomly chosendonor is not necessarily the best person to speak for a party in the Lords, because they might just have donated on a whim and may not understand that party’s ideology and beliefs. I say yes, that could be a problem, but it’s already a flaw with the current system, and why should only rich donors get a platform for their silly ideas?

    Just like the regular lottery, there could be Superdraws every few years, in which all donors are eligible and the winner gets a hereditary peerage. No longer do you need to have had the lucky break of being the descendent of a King’s mistrees to be the Earl or Countess of somewhere, now your family could get a title by pure blind chance.

    Just think how much money this could bring into politics, once everyone sees that their donation can not just only help the party they support, but it can help them too. Sure, we could have chosen the Lords by pure sortition but where’s the educational value in that? Let’s make it clear to everyone that yes, you do have a chance of getting to be in Parliament and having your views govern the nation, but it’s going to be an infinitesimally small one compared to the number of opportunities rich people get.

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    A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.

    A rare shot of the Lords, featuring no one who acquired their seat in a dodgy way.

    Thanks to some fine academic work by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thevoz, we now have what comes as close as possible to proof that there’s a link between donating large amounts of money to political parties and finding yourself with a seat in the House of Lords. I know that this is unsurprising news to many of you, on a par with a study into the Pope’s religious habits or bear’s defecatory practices, but it’s important evidence in making the case for a better democracy.

    This is one of the rare areas of politics where I find myself in total agreement with Nick Cohen, especially in just how hard it is to explain the concept of the House of Lords to someone with no knowledge of British politics, let alone the practice of it.

    “You want to know why they’re there? Let me see – there are still hereditary peers in Parliament for the unimpeachable reason that a long-dead ancestor slept with Charles II. We’ve Anglican bishops with nothing better to do, party loyalists appointed by leaders who expect them to remain loyal, and plutocrats who have given hard cash to a party and ended up – with the help of a process no one is anxious to explain – sitting on their haunches in the legislature of a democracy.”

    Remember that one of the outcomes of the recent revelations about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind was that they likely wouldn’t get their expected seats in the Lords when they left the Commons. Just imagine the future: an ennobled Jack Straw giving you the benefit of his opinions and making your laws forever, regardless of what we might wish. Now remember that the Lords is already littered with people like that who’ve bene utterly discredited, even sent to prison, and by letting it remain, we’re allowing our democracy to be thoroughly corrupted. Half of our Parliament is made up of legislators who have seats for life, can’t be removed by the people and gain their positions there through an opaque process where appointments are in the hands of a small group of people. It’s a perfect recipe for corruption and that corruption rots the rest of the system along with it.

    There’s a lot more wrong with the British system than just the Lords, but we’re now past 100 years of trying to reform it and ending up with that traditional British fudge of a tiny symbolic reform that leaves the underlying problems in place and turns out to add even more problems as time goes by. Reform of the Lords isn’t working – the whole chamber needs to be removed and we should start again from scratch. Cut out the whole corruption and then work on sorting out the rest of the system.