Cutting the Commons whilst maintaining the Lords is the wrong kind of reform

BY CONRAD WHITCROFT WHITE, Radio Host of the York Politics Digest

Two weeks ago, the final boundary changes for constituencies were released and revealed that the Boundary Commission will indeed cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. There has been no accompanying announcement to reduce the size of the 791-strong House of Lords. This misguided approach to constitutional reform will reduce the representation that the people have in Westminster, a place that most voters already feel alienated from, whilst doing nothing to address the undemocratic elitism that sits in the upper house.

I understand the arguments in favour of an unelected Lords and hold some sympathies towards the notion that the role of the upper house is to be above the ebb and flow of popularity by acting in the nation’s “best interests.” But I remain a democrat and thus believe that we should be able to hold all of those in power to account through the ballot box and in keeping the Lords out of the voters’ reach we may risk being partly governed by a tyrannical chamber. At present we suffer the tyranny of a complacent one.

The two amendments that the Lords tried to tack onto the Article 50 Bill last year were in principle acceptable, but the debate in the Lord’s chamber was far less democratic. Peers who had for years waved through austerity legislation became shocked that the great unwashed had dared vote against their cosy status quo. Classist references to “white van men” and “uneducated voters” filled the red benches.

This is not to negate the legitimate arguments that many in the anti-Brexit camp have made nor to discourage those who want to use the democratic process to prevent Brexit. It is their right. But having the process of starting the withdrawal from the EU, as authorised by a referendum, hindered by an unelected body of political elites highlights the threat that the Lords make to our democracy. And whilst the number of MPs is being cut the House of Lords is sitting pretty.

A refute of this argument is often that the Lords lack real power. They cannot reject money bills, cannot filibuster beyond a certain time and lack the authority to kill any legislation. These are not virtues for an upper house. Having the second chamber is an essential part of the checks and balances on power and it should be able to appropriately limit the power of the lower house where, in our constitution, the government sits. Proper reform is needed in the upper house so that it can be trusted with this great task.

Furthermore, to cut down on the number of MPs only limits democratic opportunities. Constituents may have to travel further to see their MP, wait longer for their issues to be heard and feel that their locality is being asked to share its representative with another area that has entirely different issues. The Commons is far from above reproach in its democratic accountability and efficiency, but this will not be solved by shrinking it.

A constitutional reform that could improve democracy within our legislative branch of government may, in fact, be to increase the size of the Commons thus giving local areas better representation in the chamber by reducing constituency population sizes. This would not only give constituents more focused and less busy MPs, but it would also reduce the influence of the government’s “payroll vote” of ministers in parliament. This would increase the independence of the legislature from the executive which could help to save parliamentary sovereignty from a rise of executive dominance and the problems that this could cause.

An additional fact that should have been considered before the Boundary Review is the instability and accusations that its plan would inevitably cause. It erases the Leader of the Opposition’s seat and weakens the majorities of key Tory rebels whilst government loyalists appear untouched. These consequences are doubtless unintended but at a time where faith in our democracy remains fragile, we cannot afford to look like a country that gerrymanders. Of course, I am not accusing the Boundary Commission of affronting democracy, but the timing and direct implications of the review should have been considered far more delicately than they perhaps were.

Therefore, if we genuinely want to increase the democratic legitimacy of our Parliament then reform should start in the Lords and not the Commons. And whilst this article takes no position on the intricacies of what specifically is to be done, what is certain that the size of the Lords should be decreased, and the size of the Commons expanded.

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