The Upper House has soldiers and airmen and scholars and lawyers and scientists and film directors and heaven knows what – many of whom would not dream of seeking election on a party-political ticket. Week in, week out they beaver away, revising and improving the legislative Horlicks that they get from the Commons; doing nothing much, as the old analysis has it, and doing it rather well.
They have tended for a long time to be more representative of society than the Commons – there are more people from ethnic minorities, there are more women, more disabled people. It is probably true that there are more bishops in the Lords than there are in the population at large, but who cares? There’s nothing like a bishop or two to add a touch of class and restraint to a revising chamber. They still have a few of the less obviously inbred hereditaries, in a gesture not just to the ancient roots of the institution but also to the fundamentally different nature of the Lords. It is crucial to the success of the Upper House that it is somehow at a distance from party-political machines, and above all that it is at one remove from the electorate.
Now the Lib Dems are proposing that voters should have a new type of politico – a “senator” – with his or her own direct mandate and constituency. This will be confusing for the voters, who will be wondering whether they should be writing to their local councillor, their MP, their Euro-MP or their senator; and it will be even worse for the egos of these bozos. Consider for a second who is likely to seek election to the Lords/Senate. People who have never made it to Parliament; people who have been flung out of Parliament; has-beens; never-wozzers; people who can see the opportunity to avenge their rejections by finding an alternative route to power. Once ensconced in the Lords they will remain there for three solid parliamentary terms, swanking, swaggering and using the headed stationery for their shopping lists.
Suddenly, the politically thrusting characters of this country will work out an alternative career structure, a new way of achieving ministerial office. And if they decide to take on their green-benched colleagues in the Lower House, as they inevitably will, who will be able to shut them up? A direct mandate is a powerful thing. Look here, mate, a senator will be able to say to a poor old MP, you were elected by 70,000 people. I have 570,000 people in my constituency – and I don’t have to worry about them kicking me out. The whole beauty and balance of the present system would be wrecked. We accept the idea that the Lords is the “Upper House” only because the Commons – being elected – has the real primacy and the real democratic legitimacy. These reforms would undermine that primacy, and the status of MPs – already bashed by the expenses business – would become positively Lilliputian.
The Prime Minister was completely right when he said that reform of the House of Lords was something the government should consider in its third term. This plan is a bunch of tidy-minded Lib Dem nonsense. It would create a new, grandiose, expensive and unnecessary class of political hack. It would turn Parliament into a chronic feud between two types of elected representative. Clegg’s scheme needs to be liquidated, vaporised and generally terminated with extreme prejudice.