Last week, Boris Johnson announced his plans to hand out 30-40 peerages in his final days of office. Given Johnson’s dubious record of handing out peerages to the likes of Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian newspaper proprietor subject to UK ‘security concerns’, there’s no telling who will be on his list. Even for the House of Lords, this feels like a new low. Boris’s peerage spree brings the very existence of Britain’s most hilariously antiquated institution into question.
The Lords is everything that is wrong with Britain.
They’re appointed rather than elected, 92 are literally hereditary aristocrats, and all of them enjoy a feudalistic title raising them above us ‘commoners’. It’s also potentially corrupt. Most Lords are either party loyalists or donors. The fact a peerage exists as a reward for a crony career has a corrosive effect on our politics. Why speak truth to power when power can make you a Lord?
Undemocratic, unrepresentative and lacking in integrity, the Lords is entirely incapable of fulfilling its role as a check on government power.
There are better systems out there. Here are five alternatives from around the world that could serve as suitable replacements:
Canada: The continuity candidate
Canada has a second legislative house that’s similar to our own, but with some distinct advantages. Senators are still appointed by the Prime Minister, but there can only be 105 of them, and all senators must retire by 75. This means you avoid our comical situation of having over 750 Lords, many of whom are well past their sell-by-date. It’s worth noting, however, that many Canadians want to reform their Senate, so if we’re looking for a solution to end the debate, this might not be the answer.
France and Germany: Let the regions decide
Political theorists may tear their hair out at these two appearing in the same section, but both countries’ second chambers have a local angle. In France, senators are indirectly elected by an electoral college of regional and local officials. Similarly, in Germany, delegates appointed by state governments appoint deputies to the Bundestag. As Britain struggles to turn ‘levelling up’ into more than just a slogan, perhaps we could learn something from our European neighbours.
America: Elected and powerful
In a system familiar to us in the UK, American senators are directly elected. They have just as much, if not more, power than members of the House of Representatives. Each state is given the same number of senators, skewing the balance of power towards smaller states, which can be a useful feature in a federation as it balances competing identities (e.g. Arkansan or American), however, in practice this can give unrepresentative advantages.
Spain and Ireland: Hybrid options
Why choose any one system? In Spain, 78% of senators come through direct election, with the remaining 22% indirectly elected by regional parliaments. Ireland’s system is slightly bizarre. 72% are chosen by MPs, councillors and outgoing senators from ‘expert’ panels. 18% are appointed by the Taoiseach, and the remaining 10% are elected by university graduates. Both countries should serve as a reminder that we have the freedom to choose a system that works for us, however unorthodox.
Sweden and New Zealand: Just get rid of it
This is the nuclear option. In 1950, New Zealand decided to abolish its Legislative Council, thinking it added little to the legislative process. Sweden made a similar decision in 1970, except they chose to merge both houses. In the UK, this would mean our sole legislative chamber would be the House of Commons. We should be prepared to ask the radical question: Does having two democratically elected houses improve the legislative process, or is it simply duplicative?
There are plenty of options out there; from selection, to size, to power, to regionality. We should make sure our decision prioritises transparency, accountability, and producing better legislation.
In the end, it matters less which option we choose, so long as we choose something different than the antediluvian House of Lords. In this country, we have a habit of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Seeing stories this week of another outgoing PM further debasing the Lords can make politics in Britain feel like Groundhog Day, except every morning things get a little worse.
Over 70% of the public want House of Lords reform. It would simply take political effort, rather than political capital, to make the change. The ball is in the court of the next Conservative leader, or indeed Keir Starmer if Labour wins the next general election. Just pick one, please.
Ben Cope is political commentator with Young Voices UK. Follow him on Twitter: @BenHCope