Just as I thought things had started to settle down with all the Brexit related insanity, it all started to kick off again. The vote to trigger Article 50 in the House of Commons was passed rather overwhelmingly, with Labour enacting a three line whip. Even so, several dozen Labour MPs rebelled (as did Ken Clarke), and the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Liberal Democrats all voted against the bill. Once the Ayes and Noes had been counted up, the final result was 498 to 114. There were a handful of amendments, none of which were accepted, some to the eternal shame of the House of Commons. (One amendment called for EU nationals living in the UK to be allowed to remain. The notion that this is be seen fit for negotiation is clearly ludicrous.)
So the first two steps have been put in place, the referendum result followed by the consent of the House of Commons. The next step is passage through the House of Lords, where the motion is expected to face fierce opposition and several amendments. This has resulted in threats of drowning the House of Lords with new “sunset” Peers (who presumably won’t stick around for very long.) Between threats against Gina Miller, branding the High and Supreme Courts as “enemies of the people”, the last thing we need is threats against the upper chamber. It turns out that the House of Lords is rather exceptional in that it’s the only upper house in a bicameral legislature which is larger than the lower house. Now the Conservative government, which is already overrepresented in the House of Lords, wants to add even more Peers, making the wedding cake even more top-heavy. At the same time the new Peers are not intended to stay around for long, but (aside from the Monarch) they are the only part of our governance who hang around indefinitely. It seems perverse to introduce so many new Peers for an undetermined amount of time to solve a temporary crisis, especially if doing so means undermining the main role of the House of Lords.
A brief but delightful interlude of Ode to Joy in the House of Commons, followed by Baroness Featherstone being defiant
If the Conservative Party goes ahead with this plan, then this would probably mean adding at least 54 new Peers in order to outnumber the Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers. This would bring the House of Lords to a grand total of 859 Peers, and if the House of Commons reduces its MPs to 600, then the House of Lords will end up 43% large than the House of Commons, making a ridiculous situation even worse. (Although if the increase and decrease in numbers is roughly equal, then it won’t be any harder to fit everyone in the House of Lords for the Opening of Parliament. Silver linings and all that.) As is usual with Brexit, there is a dashing of irony to add to all this. With the upper house being unelected, this will make the UK institutions even less democratic than those of the EU.
However, flooding the House of Lords is not the only way to go. There have also been suggestions to abolish the House of Lords entirely. On one hand this isn’t a bad idea if it makes the upper house more accountable, and gives more control to the electorate. The history of parliament in the UK has been one of gradual but inexorable wresting of control from the Monarchy and Church to the general population, with an ever-increasing franchise. A 21st century lurch from hereditary and spiritual Peers to elected representatives is long overdue. On the other hand, such a task would be immense. The Houe of Lords generally can’t stop legislation, only delay it, and will oppose any change that will not lead to a better replacement. Given that the House of Lords can usually delay legislation by about two years, this means that any attempt to abolish the House of Lords in favour of another institution to ensure that Brexit happens quickly will actually delay Brexit by several years, by which time another General Election will have taken place.
What would an elected upper house look like? In the USA this is the Senate, the upper house of Congress, and their system is rather simple to implement. Each of the fifty states returns two Senators, for a grand total of one hundred. Other nations, with more opaque histories, have upper houses based on geographic boundaries, usually with several factors influencing the number of representatives. For the UK, it would quite clearly be a bit a of a mess. The first obvious step would be to split the UK into its constituent nations, but this gets complicated by devolution. Then there’s the possibility of Scottish independence (as well as Irish reunification) to take into account.
There is one main impetus to get a second elected house though, and this is to represent the interests of people across the UK, through proportional representation. The House of Commons does rather well at representing people at a local level, with constituencies of about 75,000 people which usually only extend about 25 miles across. Those are the kinds of numbers people can easily manage. What the House of Commons fails to do is represent the parties nationally, with the SNP getting 14600% more representation than UKIP, when considering the ratio of seats to votes. That could easily be fixed by having a second house elected nationwide using proportional representation. (Whether it’s a good idea to unleash that many UKIP Peers on the UK is another matter altogether. I’d argue that it would be the fastest way to decimate the party, and that light is by far the best disinfectant.) Alongside UKIP, we’d also see a dramatic rise in the Green Party. While I am generally very happy with the Green Party policies (fear of nuclear power plants aside) I think they’re best as a pressure group that influences other parties. After all, the presence of the Green vote has been instrumental in ensuring that all the major parties have decent environmental policies. Sometimes shaping elections is more powerful than winning elections.
All this got me thinking about what could happen (although almost certainly won’t.) If the House of Lords sent back the Article 50 bill with a pile of amendments, and the Houses of Parliament played ping-pong, this could delay the process for about two years. At that point the Government would enact (and easily win a vote on) the Parliament Act, forcing the bill past the House of Lords. The following election would then see campaigns to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a new proportional house. Again, this would take years to enact, and with no interest in their long term future, the Peers would continue to vote with their conscience. Eventually the whole thing would drag out to the point that Brexit would look suicidal to all (and not just to those with some foresight) and get kicked into the long grass. At the same time we’d end up with a truly modern system fit for the 20th century, and if we’re lucky, the 21st century. That’ll never happen. A boy can dream though, a boy can dream…