The upcoming Scottish independence referendum has placed the UK’s constitution in the spotlight. If Scotland votes no in September, we should seize this opportunity to holistically re-examine our country’s structures of government, tie up the odd ends left by asymmetrical devolution and enhance the legitimacy of central government.
As deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg has had special responsibility for political and constitutional reform. His poor record speaks for itself: the lost AV referendum, the abandoned boundary changes, the Lobbying Act that will curtail free speech and House of Lords reform kicked into the long grass.
Contrast this to Labour’s record following its 1997 electoral win: independence for the Bank of England; legislative devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following referenda; a directly elected mayor and assembly for London; proportional representation for European and devolved elections; the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act; the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords and the creation of a Lords Speaker; reform of party financing; and the establishment of a Supreme Court.
Labour has been – and can again be – the party of transformative constitutional reform. As a party of the progressive left, our politics are premised on a need for change.
Should Scotland vote to remain within the UK later this year and Labour then go on to win the 2015 general election, we will be confronted with serious questions about the future of the UK’s constitution.
The Scottish Labour party has already published its plans for the further devolution of powers to Holyrood while the Silk Commission in Wales has also called for further devolution. But, in addition to looking at what can be devolved, we should be looking at how the nations and regions of the UK can feed back into the centre.
One possible step would be to complete the project started in 1997: reforming the House of Lords. As well as being a goal in itself, reforming the Lords could allow us to tie up the loose ends left by asymmetrical devolution whilst also enhancing representation for English counties in the absence of an English parliament or regional assemblies.
While it is easy to criticise the current setup in the Upper House, it does have some merit. Members are appointed – from the professions, business, media, etc – and are able to draw upon their backgrounds to provide in-depth scrutiny of legislation and government policy, thus fulfilling their role as Parliament’s revising chamber. As members are appointed they fulfil this role without consideration for their political careers. Studies have shown, for example, that while the membership turnover of some Commons’ committees is high, this is not the case in the Lords – where members also often have far greater expertise. Peculiarly, under current arrangements, the Lords’ USP is precisely that it is unelected.
With no term limits and over 800 members, however, there can be no doubt that the Lords has become bloated. The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that under the status quo up to three quarters of our national lawmakers may be unelected by the end of the next Parliament. Prior to Labour removing all but 92 of the hereditary Peers through the House of Lords Act 1999, reforms focused on limiting the chamber’s powers – through the Parliament Acts – rather than altering its composition. All three major parties supported at least a partly elected chamber in their 2010 manifestos, but elections in and of themselves would not resolve current tensions. Indeed they may exacerbate them: democratising the Lords would arguably undermine the political supremacy of the Commons and therefore lead to further constitutional wrangling.
Rather than being appointed, or elected for single terms as Nick Clegg proposed, members of the Lords could be elected from geographic regions across the UK using a system of proportional representation. This could operate in a similar way to the Additional Member System in Scotland, Wales and London; two types of parliamentarian, each with a different type of mandate.
As a recent debate in the Commons on the ‘Future of Scotland and North East England post-2014’ illustrated, the interests of different regions within the UK are not confined by national borders. Electing the Lords in this way would give the regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a voice at the centre of our parliamentary democracy. Unlike the SNP’s campaign for independence, this constitutional reform would not draw dividing lines and build barriers but rather include and bring together.
This may seem radical but Labour is a social democratic party and the UK’s constitution is unwritten; Lords reform is an opportunity not an obstacle. Constitutional change may not be our raison d’être but reform is in our DNA.