Ignoble Lords

It is self-evident that arguments in favour of keeping the British House of Lords are undemocratic. After all, what could be democratic about supporting an institution in which 10% of the membership owe their place to their bloodline and most of the rest to the favours of some politician?

Few of the people who support the present Lords do so because they support the hereditary principle. Instead, they follow a more modern, but equally undemocratic, argument, which suggests that the debates in the Lords are of higher quality than those in the Commons because the peers don’t need to please voters, and are often experts in their fields.

Call this the Robert Winston argument, which points out that people like the mustachioed professor would never stand for election to a Senate, and the legislative process would thus be deprived of his contribution.

Personally, I think I could stand the disappointment. This is not to say anything about Lord Winston, who is indeed a noted expert. I can see how that might entitle him to a seat on Start the Week, but I don’t see why it entitles him to a seat in the legislature.

Similarly, if his expertise is needed, he can give evidence to a Parliamentary committee on the topic, without needing the power to vote on the planning bill.

While the case for listening to experts is strong, the case for giving them legislative privileges above mere voters is not what democracy is about. In any case, most of the Lords aren’t experts. Many of them are former politicians, elevated to the peerage after a long career or as reward for some politically useful deed.

This cosy world is made for corruption, a naturally occurring growth in a body with power to please corporations but no accountability to voters. The story of the four dodgy peers, reported in the Sunday Times, and on the BBC may be inaccurate, but it is not surprising.

What will be surprising to many is the lack of available sanctions even if the peers are found to be shamelessly corrupt. Peers, who hold office because of who they are, cannot be sacked or stripped of their peerage. They cannot even be suspended, so gentlemanly is the House ‘s code of conduct.

This is what comes from putting expertise above democracy in Parliament. No accountability to voters, no benefit to the legislative process, and not even sanction for corruption. It is astonishing and shameful that proper reform has taken so long. The introduction of an all-elected upper house cannot be delayed.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

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