Parliamentary Reform: Who Stands to Gain?

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May 18, 2012 by Nash Riggins

After over 100 years on the backburner, Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats are finally dead-set on reforming Westminster’s archaic House of Lords – in fact, it’s expected that new legislation regarding the body’s structure will be voted upon by Parliament within the next several weeks. That being said, the reasoning behind this latest push for reform may be slightly more complicated and selfish in nature than the Coalition Government should like any of us to think.

“The principle that people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the laws of the land would strike most people in the country as fairly uncontroversial,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg rationalised in an interview last month. “It’s something we have been talking about for 100 years. We should just get on with it now, with minimum fuss.”

Minimum fuss, indeed. After his embarrassingly catastrophic attempt in order to ‘modernise’ British democracy via the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, Mr Clegg should have learned by now that little can be achieved in western democracy without first achieving, at the very least, a maximum amount of “fuss”. On the other hand, Clegg’s assertion that substantial reform within the House of Lords would bring about an additional “smidgen” of democracy to the way in which Britain is run is certainly not without its truth.

Indeed, it is quite trivial in itself that the 800-strong House of Lords has thus far withstood the winds of time; composed of life peers, hereditary peers and – for whatever reason – a smattering of Anglican bishops, the upper house of Parliament is relatively powerless in all acts of government bar the power to veto legislation submitted from the House of Commons. That being said, it cannot simultaneously be ignored that the nature of this largely ceremonial body is in many ways undemocratic. Enter proverbial Mr Fix-It, Nick Clegg.

In a seemingly selfless act in the name of democracy, the Lib Dem leader has proposed a fairly encompassing solution to the House’s political anomaly, which is set to go before Parliament within the next several weeks (for whatever reason, Mr Clegg ruled out the idea of sponsoring a referendum on the matter). First and foremost, Clegg’s proposal demands that the body of his reformed House of Lords immediately be reduced from the size of 800 to 300 – 240 of which would be elected for a one-off, 15-year term under proportional representation as early as 2015. Meanwhile, the remaining 60 seats will, naturally, continue to be filled by “independent-minded experts’”(ie, for whatever reason, more Anglican Bishops).

At first glance, this offering does indeed appear to be a reasonable step towards the further democratisation of Britain’s government – which is exactly why all three major parties pledged to make such reform a “top priority” prior to the last general election. Yet while the new powers of this currently inconsequential arm of government remain unspecified, one cannot help but wonder whether the motivation driving this reform may not be in the name of democracy, but rather in the name of those behind it gaining some form of additional political power.

Contrary to Mr Clegg’s failed AV crusade, Prime Minister David Cameron is offering the Lib Dems his full-fledged support regarding reform within the House of Lords; yet in truth, his public statements supporting the move sound more hesitant than anything. Indeed, many within his Conservative party fear that a second chamber of potentially equal power within Parliament would instigate an American-style gridlock system; that is to say, a highly partisan system in which both houses of Parliament could end up pitting themselves against each other based solely upon party lines – which would undoubtedly prevent them from working together in order to pass legislation. Yet if one were to further scrutinise this official perspective against reform, they may find that many MPs shudder at Clegg’s proposal not because of their fierce love for democracy, but rather because of their fierce individualist ambitions.

Fact: a large portion of MPs aspire to ‘retire’ to the House of Lords after losing their seats, so as to stay within the limelight of the political spectrum without the chore of having to represent a real constituency of voters. Given the nature of these aspirations, it’s fair to say that the House of Lords represents something to MPs that is quite undemocratic in nature. Is it true that these new reforms to the House of Lords may at times undermine the effectiveness of democracy? The answer is a ‘maybe’ at best; however, it makes more sense in order to take that risk rather than to go on allowing professional politicians to serve life terms in an unelected body of Parliament.

That being said, self-interest unfortunately drives much of daily life in Westminster – and Mr Clegg is no exception. It’s no secret that the height of Liberal Democratic influence is at a all-time low; the party is currently polling at an embarrassing 10%, and can afford little room for any major gaffes in its policy-agenda. Yet given this realisation, could it be a mere, happy coincidence that Nick Clegg’s reform proposal for the House of Lords could systematically see the Lib Dems’ power within parliament rise to over 20% of what it was before the party began to fall from grace in 2011? Furthermore, this bill’s potential success would hand Clegg’s party the dominant casting vote in a new, reformed second house of Parliament – not to mention a fresh sphere of influence upon the political stage.

Meanwhile, is David Cameron aware of the self-indulging nature with which his Deputy Prime Minister is attempting to squeak by his reform bill? Of course he is, but Mr Cameron has got his eye on other apples – in particular, the redrawing of several major constituencies that would gain the Conservative party at least a dozen more seats in Parliament. Unsurprisingly, the two proposals are conveniently located within the same bill – although both parties claim that this is only a happy coincidence, and the two pieces of legislation are in no way linked.  Yet in the wake of his own self-indulgence, it is more than likely that the Prime Minister is only supporting Clegg’s House of Lords proposal out of sheer sympathy; after all, what Mr Cameron once referred to as a “third-term issue” may be the only major achievement that Nick Clegg will have been able to accomplish in his long stint as Deputy Prime Minister, assuming that the bill even passes.

So, having at long-last reached full circle, it seems safe to assume that self indulgence has regrettably become a staple of modern politics – and while a fresh recession may or may not be on the horizon, it is indeed unfortunate that Nick Clegg’s deceptive ambitions for an increase in his party’s cumulative political power is this month’s ‘hot topic.’ Is substantial reform within the House of Lords beneficial to the people of Britain? Without a doubt; yet on the other hand, it also seems frustratingly clear that voters don’t have nearly as much to gain from these proposed reforms as do the professional politicians that are instigating them. If Nick Clegg truly wants to reform the House of Lords in order to benefit the people of Britain – rather than himself – he must submit a proposal for scrutiny that is truly unpartisan and fair in nature. In the meantime, it’s pretty safe to assume that, after several weeks of debate, the power-grubbing MPs who are voting upon this issue will inevitably place the idea of reforming the House of Lords once more into its rightful place: the backburner.

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