Parliament & Lords Reform

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The text below is taken from a discussion in a Green Party forum, and will be substantially rewritten before this website goes live.

Possibilities for Lords reform:

There is a conflict between our interests as members of local communities and our interests as members of the broader society, and we need to provide different electoral systems to reflect that: one house could be elected on the basis of geographical constituencies, as the Commons is currently, while the other might be elected on the basis of temporal constituencies – birthdays for example (i.e. everyone in the country born on the 16th of July has the same representative). That would counter any tendency to ‘pork-barrel’ representation and would allow the electorate to separate their wishes for how different levels of society should operate in a way that they can’t currently.

Another possibility is to recognise that there is a dynamic tension between different functions of government, which we currently all have to weigh up individually but which would be better weighed up in aggregate. Polarised Government

I regard the supremacy of the Commons within Parliament as a significant cause of inadequate governance. What I object to, in this proposal, is creating an artificial rival legitimacy which would merely duplicate the mandate the Commons has, while the natural rival legitimacy which the Lords originally represented is left orphaned.

The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty emerged because Parliament was the place where the three principal vectors of power came together in the form of Crown, Lords and Commons. The Lords had a voice there because they were local rulers and their presence within Parliament offered a way for the competing interests of central and local authority to be reconciled without physical conflict. The emergence of the Commons as a rival power and erosion of the power of the aristocracy, combined with the subsequent development of elected local authorities, therefore undermined the legitimacy of parliamentary sovereignty in two ways: in the obvious way that the House of Lords no longer had the mandate of independent power but also in the less obvious way that local government no longer had the means to defend their own autonomy.

The Green Party’s Public Administration policies start with the principle of subsidiarity but don’t currently recognise, as far as I can see, that this demands integration between different levels of government. It’s not enough to say that ‘nothing should be done centrally if it can be done equally well, or better, locally’; there has to be an established process for determining which level it is appropriate for specific powers to be exercised at.

A simple way of achieving that integration would be to make members of the Lords representatives of local authorities(which could be introduced, without much adjustment of numbers, simply by having local authorities adopt existing members). Members would be subject to recall by their local authority, or by public initiative, and new members could be elected from a list which could include a default candidate nominated by the local authority.

Having said all that, I think the idea of reform being initiated by the Lords itself is an excellent one. An alliance between the Lords and the Local Government Association would be hard for the Commons to dismiss; it would honour the roots of the House of Lords in a way that other reforms wouldn’t and it would give local government an aggregate voice in central government policy making which would allow them to insist on genuine subsidiarity.

Apart from anything else, as long as the integration between local and central government is missing, the sovereignty of Parliament cannot be taken for granted (as I pointed out in a submission to a Commons select committee a year or two ago). The current situation, in which Westminster pays lip-service to the principle of subsidiarity but imposes its will regardless, carries real potential for constitutional conflict between local and central government. Re-establishing the Lords as the representatives of local government would restore the integrity of Parliamentary Sovereignty and remove a significant source of unrest.


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