The country faces serious economic and social problems. The problems are often complex and the solutions not always clear or easy to implement. I do despair at times when politicians, rather than admit to the fact that the problems don’t necessarily admit of clear solutions, fall back on advocating structural change. It is usually a substitute for serious thought and reflection.
Advocating electoral reform is a sign often of desperation. So too is advocating an elected second chamber. You can recognise the symptoms not only of desperation but also of lazy thinking. The argument often rests on the assumption that the case for change is self-evident. It isn’t. Trotting out the need for a ‘fair’ electoral system or the ‘democratic option’ for the second chamber shows a lack of understanding of the issues. Alternative electoral systems are not self-evidently fairer than the present one and an elected second chamber does not necessarily render a system of representative democracy – with accountability at its heart – more democratic.
Evidence of desperation was apparent in the debate among the party leaders broadcast last night. When asked about the expenses’ scandal, the responses deviated on to electoral reform and election of the second chamber. Though the House of Lords has had problems with some members in respect of their expense claims (and most peers are as furious about it as members of the public), the principal problem has been at the other end of the Palace of Westminster. It is not clear how electing the same politicians by another means, or having a second body of elected politicians, will solve the problem raised by the questioner. The problem isn’t a structural one, it is an attitudinal one. Politicians should not blame the system, or at least the way the system is structured. The problem is not external. Until they accept that, they have a problem.
The arguments for the present House of Lords are powerful in their own right and equally powerful when contrasted with the alternatives on offer. An elected second chamber has little to offer. Even the government’s proposals for an elected second chamber do not provide for any accountability (no re-election) and concede implicitly that the people who would seek election would rather be in the Commons (those who have served in the second chamber being prohibited from standing for the Commons for a period of years). Nor would an elected House be cheaper to run, as Gordon Brown claimed last night. The present House is cost-effective and relatively inexpensive, given that peers are not salaried and there are no staff allowances for each member running usually into six-figures. Even if the size of the House is halved, members would presumably need to be paid and have staff support. There is no obvious saving. More importantly, there is no value added to the political process. The present House does add value. It is worth fighting for.