The Real Obstacle to Lords Reform

The Palace of Westminster by Mgimelfarb (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Palace of Westminster by Mgimelfarb (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The BBC has come up with a brief video on the subject of House of Lords reform. Although reporter Giles Dilnot provides a decent overview of the obstacles that stand in the way of Lords reform (inter-party disagreement, intra-party disagreement, lack of public interest, etc.), he doesn’t really address one of the most significant impediments, namely the House of Commons’ reluctance to cede power.

The primacy of the Commons is one of the hallmarks of the modern British constitution. They alone have the power to chuck out a government through a vote of no confidence; their exclusive right to frame money bills (i.e. legislation relating to taxation or government expenditure) gives them control over the nation’s purse strings; and the Parliament Acts ensure that the Lords must ultimately yield if the two Houses come into conflict. Naturally, the House of Commons is reluctant to give up its privileged place in the constitution, and most proposals for Lords reform envision a second chamber with the same limited powers as it has now (see, for example, United Kingdom 2007, 25 and United Kingdom 2011, 11).

The problem with this approach is that the Commons ultimately derive their primacy from their democratic mandate. However, conventional wisdom states that the House of Lords should eventually become a partially or wholly elected chamber. If that happens, the Commons’ primacy will almost certainly come under attack. After all, why should one elected chamber be required to yield to another?

Governments tend to answer that question by highlighting other democratically elected second chambers with limited powers (see, for example, United Kingdom 2007, 23, 25), though such comparisons are somewhat misleading since those countries usually have written constitutions that define the relationship between the branches of the legislature (for a good overview of the global situation, see Russell, 52-57). The relationship between the Houses of Parliament, on the other hand, is largely defined by convention, which gives it a greater degree of mutability. However, it also means that an elected House of Lords could decide that it is no longer bound by conventions that originated when the House was dominated by hereditary Conservative peers. Without those conventions, MPs would find themselves in a much less powerful position since the Lords could regularly force them to wait a year or more in order to get legislation onto the statute book.

Unless MPs can learn to embrace the unknown, I don’t think there can be any comprehensive reform of the House of Lords. Instead, we’ll continue to see piecemeal measures like the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 from time to time, but there won’t be anything more substantial for the foreseeable future.

Works Referenced

Russell, Meg. The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

United Kingdom. The House of Lords: Reform. Cm. 7027. February 2007.

________. House of Lords Reform Draft Bill. Cm. 8077. May 2011.

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