House of Lords


The upper house of the bicameral legislature of the United Kingdom. The House of Lords has its origins in the nobility. Its members are not elected, which leads to the impression of an undemocratic force implementing its will into law against the wishes of the people.

The two most glaring undemocratic aspects of the House of Lords are the continuing existence of members whose right to sit in it was acquired solely because of their ancestry, and the bishoprics of the Church of England which still exercise voting rights in the House. These problems are easily solved:

The House of Lords was slashed in size when most of the hereditary peers were removed in the reforms at the turn of the millennium. But now the size of the House of Lords is swelling again, as each successive government appoints peers to try and increase support for its policies in the upper house. Without reform, this will become a race to the bottom with each successive government rushing to appoint more members than the previous one in order to pack the House with enough members from its own party in order to ensure that its bills pass without amendments they don’t like. Proposals for further reform of the Lords usually focus on making its members elected rather than appointed.

However, being appointed rather than elected provides the UK Parliament with a unique opportunity to invite participation from people for whom it would be inconvenient to enter politics through the campaign election cycle — intellectuals (like Peter Hennessy and Nicholas Stern), businesspeople (like Martha Lane Fox), charity workers (like Jane Campbell) — and allow them to provide real input in the process of making laws. A revised system for appointment would let party politics take its proper backseat rĂ´le in the Lords and encourage a healthier balance of party-political and crossbench members. Here’s a simple proposal:

Set the maximum size of the House at, say, 750 members (this would represent a further shrinkage, since as of 2015 there are 781 members; if the House continues to grow before the reforms can be enacted, the limit might have to be larger). At a fixed interval, allow Commons members to nominate people to receive peerages to fill up vacancies (if any) which have arisen. Set a relatively low bar for this — say, 20% of members have to nominate someone in order for them to become a candidate. Another good criterion for selection would be to insist that the 20% would come from at least two parties, say a minimum of 5% from each. The House of Lords Appointments Commission would then investigate the nominations, remove any candidates they feel to be inappropriate, and open a ballot on the remaining candidates, who would be elected through a Single Transferable Vote ballot of MPs and existing Lords (since it’s a multiple-winner voting system that doesn’t allow ties).

Ideally, to prevent those nominated from campaigning to get into the Lords, as much of this process as possible should be conducted in secret until the results of this election are announced (with disqualification possible for Lords who entered the House through politics rather than on their own merits). Ideally even the ballots themselves should be secret, to prevent party whips in the Commons from trying to pack the Lords with party members.

This system would allow the most useful public figures to enter the Lords, and make it harder for party-affiliated Lords to enter the House, but still not impossible (so that the best MPs can still receive peerages after their exit from the Commons, to allow them to continue to participate in lawmaking).

A more democratic Lords would also open the door to loosening some of the constitutional fetters that have been placed on it through the years.