Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Price of Democracy: In Defence of the House of Lords

by Andrew Jones

Members of the House of Lords
The underlying principle to which every Western aspires is democracy:  the freedom for a people to influence and choose the direction of their government. In this expansive quest, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in particular, has levelled his sights at the House of Lords. Whilst such an endeavor may well help to increase the control which the British people wield over the establishment, the consequences could, in certain respects, be disastrous. For example, if such a move were carried out, one result would be the introduction of career politicians into another tier of government. Indeed, at a time when Britain is in the mire of double- dip recession, many commentators (such as Boris Johnson) have questioned whether such a move would, in fact, offer any benefits to the current parliamentary or governmental system.

Becoming Lord Mandelson
Admittedly, reforming the House of Lords has some benefits. The current system of appointment through a committee offers many complications and problems. Reflecting on the recent appointments, the twice- disgraced Lord Mandelson (forced to resign two cabinet positions as a result) was able to be instated as Business Secretary under the previous (Labour) government as a consequence of the current system. This move, which invoked controversy at the time, demonstrates a need to overhaul the system of appointment, which currently allows for disgraced ministers to return to politics without the need for popular election.

After the removal of hereditary seats, reforming the system further by offering the populace a say in the process of appointment seems a logical step in the move towards increasing democracy. This ideal has appealed to an array of philosophers, politicians and commentators since at least the seventeenth century. Therefore, surely, by opening our own system to democracy, society will indeed benefit? Certainly, such a change could reduce the possibility of disgraced politicians using it to re-enter the political forum. A central theme of the policies of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government has been to try to make the political system more transparent, which certainly would be aided by the introduction of democracy into the Lords.

Despite these obvious aspects which desperately need reform, introducing democracy into the Lords would actually be a disastrous act.
Low turnout
Whilst the introduction of democratic elections into the process of appointing members of the House of Lords may work in principle, the lack of interest in political affairs within the population offers a major hindrance. When, in a general election, only 65% of Britons vote and in local council elections a derisory 30% vote, the question remains as to whether there is really the interest in politics for such a system to be truly democratic. Indeed with such a low turnout in recent elections there is a lot to be said for making voting an imperative as opposed to an option. When Britons are clearly lacking interest in politics, Nick Clegg's proposals to increase the number of elections seems  to offer an ineffective solution. Although promoting the virtues of democracy in a political system is optimal, perhaps it is time that Clegg looked thoroughly at the proposed reforms and asks two questions: (1) are these reforms really effective and pragmatic? (2) are the British people really interested? Of course a significant proportion are interested, yet, when this proportion, in certain cases, turns out to be a minority, surely the use of elections becomes less and less representative and therefore more ineffective.

These reforms are planned at a time of a bleak economic outlook, making many of the proposed changes even more difficult to accept. When unemployment is currently affecting over 2.65 million people in the UK, the changes, which would introduce further political expense, are unlikely to help improve relations between the British populations and its politicians. Indeed such a major change to the establishment would also take a serious amount of time to fully integrate, which could jeopardise the recovery of the British economy as the political system is likely to be left ineffective for a period of time.

Another serious concern has been raised from observing comparable systems, most notably in the United States. Introducing another house of elected officials could leave the executive branch of the government fundamentally undermined. Looking back to the mid-term elections in November 2010, President Obama lost control of the House of Representatives, a serious defeat, one that has made it virtually impossible for any substantive legislation to be passed during the past two years. Although many aspects of the British and American political systems are different, Mr Clegg's reforms leave our own system open to the governing party (or parties) losing control of the House of Lords, making life extremely difficult for effective policy making in such difficult economic times.

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