The Open Univesity : Open Politics

Reform 1999
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Where now?
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Where Now?
by the Open University's Michael Saward

Can you square the notion of democracy with the reforms proposed for the House of Lords?

Some campaigners fear the reforms will stuff the Lords with clones of Tony Blair

Tony's clones? Charter 88 demonstrates against the Wakeham proposals

So, can you ever make the House of Lords more democratic. Should you even bother trying?

Michael Saward, Professor of Government and Politics at the Open University, teases out some of the issues involved in reforming the Lords.

Michael Saward
Professor Michael Saward: Democracy can cut different ways

A question of democracy

Democracy is the word on most people's lips when House of Lords reform is debated. But to call for more democracy is not always to demand something clear-cut.

Consider three ways in which 'democracy' might be linked to what should happen to the House of Lords:

(1) Democracy means rule by the majority. This means that the elected chamber, the Commons, is the only legitimate chamber. The unelected House of Lords is illegitimate and should be abolished entirely. Or alternatively, that only a fully elected upper house is acceptable.

(2) Democracy is about a country's whole political system, not just one institution within it. This means that not every institution needs to be elected, or otherwise to have a democratic basis. In the UK context, it does not matter if the Lords is not 'democratic' in itself, so long as the elected chamber, the Commons, is more powerful and the political system as a whole is democratic. The Lords could be retained as a 'complement' or balance to the Commons, for example in the post-White Paper format where the majority of its members will be appointed not elected.

(3) Democracy is about debate, open deliberation, and proper consideration of issues. These factors are more important than elections, which sometimes stifle rather than encourage serious debate on issues. The Lords provides a significant forum for such debate, not least because of the considerable expertise and experience of its members. In short, the Lords' democratic credentials do not depend on election.

So 'democracy' can cut different ways, lead to different conclusions.

It can be a matter of rhetoric and political compromise as much as a matter of high principle. These things are highly evident in debates on the Lords.

There are other pressing questions to think about too.

Should we attend to the people's expressed wishes (in votes), or are their interests something else, which others may be able to see and act upon more clearly than people themselves? Does somebody have to be elected in order to represent people's interests (certainly Lord Wakeham felt that a highly representative Lords need not require extensive election)?

We can expect debate to continue, especially after the widely critical reception of the government's new proposals. The rhetoric, and the principle, of democracy will be at the heart of this debate.

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