Earlier this week, we saw Corbyn commit to abolishing the House of Lords, replacing it with a wholly elected second chamber. This isn’t really news to anyone. It’s not hard to gauge Corbyn’s take on this continuous debate. For at least a century, reform has been on the table and many may say that we are heading towards an elected second chamber, it is just a question of when we get there. Although I don’t think it’s a necessity to the health of British politics.
The Parliament Act 1911 established the House of Commons as the dominant chamber, and since many more changes have been made. Most importantly, New Labour made a commitment to Lords reform, and for the most part succeeded. By removing all but 92 hereditary peers the composition of the Lords was drastically changed, Tories no longer had a monopoly, the chamber was built and skill and expertise rather than an individual’s family tree. Now, if written on paper, the idea of an unelected chamber seems to be a ludicrously outdated idea, one I couldn’t see myself supporting, but reality is a very different thing.
The British political system is an old, fiddly mess. No part of it slots together neatly, barely any of it is written down. I’m not quite sure how, but we have muddled through the centuries. We continue to muddle through, feeling our way around history. I quite like that, it works, even if it shouldn’t. I feel the same about the Lords. Appointed chambers should not work as a part of a liberal democracy, but in ours they do. The House of Lords does it’s job and does it well. Simply, it is there to scrutinise, to tell the government when it is time to think again. We’ve seen them doing this time and time again: tax credits, data protection, Brexit. Part of the reason it is able to do that so well is because members aren’t focused on re-election, gaining support from constituents, or impressing the media. These factors contribute to one important fact: Lords aren’t concerned about simply carrying the party’s word.
When we look at those sitting in the Lords, most of them are there for good reason. They are experts, professionals, experienced individuals. Some with a purely political founding, others without. Architecture, horticulture, medicine, the armed forces, to name a few of the professions we see represented in the chamber. These are diverse people with a lot of well earned knowledge, even if we may not always agree with the conclusions they draw from it. I don’t think we would see this grand variety if it wasn’t for these people being appointed. To say they are simply there to trail behind following their parties is an insult to the value of their backgrounds. Without an election cycle to worry about these people can put the time, energy, and unapologetic honesty into fulfilling their intended role of discussion and scrutiny.
Of course, I don’t think the House of Lords is a perfect. Many parts of it are still problematic, but it’s unelected nature is not one of them. Perhaps the next step should be removing the clergy – a very literal separation of church and state. However, that’s a debate for a different day. At such a vital time for the UK, we don’t need to waste time fixing something that currently works.