Reforming the Second Chamber is a quest Theresa May should know only ends in the likely tale of failure.
An elected House of Lords is a measure May has supported for many years. It is consistent with her beliefs. When she was Shadow Commons Leader in 2007, she voted for an elected Second Chamber.
With Cameron’s Honours List and Corbyn’s controversial appointment of Shami Chakrabarti as a peer, it is admirable that she is willing to embark upon this noble course of delivering Second Chamber reform. This something which her many predecessors have consistently failed to deliver. And May has history on her side to know that is the case.
Despite these questionable appointments, the Second Chamber consists of many political experts who have not only experienced remarkable political success, but it has experts who have achieved a great deal in business, charity and so on. These people generally have a strong sense of judgement and experience.
To a certain extent, the one man who deserves credit for successfully reforming the Second Chamber when it started to become a political hot potato is Tony Blair.
One substantial reform Blair secured during his tenure in office was re-balancing the make-up of the Second Chamber in 1999. The number of hereditary peers was dramatically reduced to 92 and the number of life peers increased. All the parties roughly achieved equal representation and independent cross-benchers were appointed to ensure all legislation was fairly scrutinised.
Blair’s first attempt to reform the Second Chamber was a success. Blair handled this reform with such skill by securing support from Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Conservative Party in the Second Chamber, who was willing to oppose his own leader at the time, William Hague, to deliver this reform. Blair issued a compromise towards the hereditary peers by allowing 92 of them to retain their seats whilst ensuring the majority of peers were not appointed on a hereditary basis. The Second Chamber had completely changed.
But Blair’s government made the terrible mistake of not leaving the Second Chamber alone after that. In 2003, Blair tried to reform the Second Chamber again by presenting the House of Commons with a variety of options for MPs to vote upon that would involve a mixture of a certain percentage of peers being elected and the rest appointed. But the House of Commons failed to agree upon one single option and reform of the Second Chamber was kicked into the political long grass for future debates. Disappointing really, considering Blair won a landslide victory two years before.
During Blair’s final days in 2007, the House of Commons voted for an all-elected Second Chamber. That was a significant victory for the Labour government considering they failed to win support for an all-elected Second Chamber in 2003. Unsurprisingly, the House of Lords rejected the proposals and voted for all peers to be appointed. After all, when has there ever been an occasion when politicians have voted themselves out of a job?
Finally, in 2012, Clegg, the former leader of a party whose sole determination lies in creating a true liberal democracy in Britain, the Liberal Democrats, failed to tackle this poisoned chalice in British politics. He shouldn’t of expected to succeed either when he was in coalition with a Conservative Party overwhelmingly against House of Lords reform.
It beggars belief as to what our politicians hope to achieve by allowing the British people to vote for elected peers in the Second Chamber. It would only create an extra layer of career politicians which the British people already resent. For any politician who fails to win a general election, it only provides them with another avenue to pursue a political career.
Also, would it really improve democratic accountability in this country? If the Second Chamber was due to be elected in the middle of a government’s term in office, people would only use it as an opportunity to protest vote against the incumbent government, thereby allowing the House of Lords to challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons. Legislation would stall and the principle of strong government in this country would be destroyed.
By all means, improve the way our peers are chosen. It is a disgrace the way Cameron and Corbyn have behaved in regards to appointing some of our peers recently. But that’s as far as Second Chamber reform should go.
As we can see, all of our recent governments have failed to deliver an elected Second Chamber since the late ’90s. This is not a great track record for past governments. This will no doubt haunt May as she begins a new programme to reform the Second Chamber. She should know better than anyone that the likely tale of reforming the Second Chamber will only end in tears.