Back in August, thousands of you wrote to David Cameron to tell him to stop sending more unelected politicians to the House of Lords. The PM’s nominations to the Lords were repeatedly delayed after criticism of the names of party donors and cronies on the list. Finally Cameron announced 45 new peerages, swelling the ranks of the Lords to an unprecedented 826 peers.
Last month we got a response from the Cabinet Office, which said that although there is a strong case for electing the House of Lords, “this is not a priority in this Parliament”. So it came as a bit of a surprise this week when we saw the news that the government is threatening major changes to the Lords if they lose a key vote on tax credits. News sites reported that the government is considering packing the Lords with Conservative peers or shutting it down entirely if they are defeated.
There is a convention that the House of Lords does not block legislation that was in the governing party’s manifesto. However, peers opposing tax credit cuts say that they are acting in the spirit of the convention as the cuts were not in the Conservative manifesto.
It is very unlikely that the government would - or even could - shut down the Lords or pack it with peers, but the threats show very clearly where their priorities lie on reform of the House of Lords. David Cameron is happy with an unelected House of Lords, but only if it votes the right way.
The Conservative MPs who scuppered Lords reform back in 2012 defend the unelected Lords on the basis of its purported independence and expertise. The threats over tax credits show that they would prefer this independence to stay theoretical. What they really want is a compliant, docile Lords which passes the government’s programme no matter how thin their mandate.
An elected second chamber based on proportional representation would mean that every bill would require support from other parties to pass. The government would no longer be able to rely on its majority in the Commons, manufactured by our distorted electoral system, to force through its agenda. A second chamber with a democratic mandate would be freer to challenge the government on policies like tax credits that didn’t appear in its manifesto. The government might have to get used to a few more defeats, but Parliament would be stronger, more democratic and more accountable.