It is not in the manifesto

Politics.co.uk quotes Constitutional Affairs Minister, Mark Harper, as telling Conservative colleagues who do not support an elected second chamber to fall into line: “For those Conservative colleagues who are not in favour of Lords reform at all – it was in our manifesto.”  Except that it wasn’t.  The Conservative manifesto states that the party “will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber”.  That is not a commitment to bringing forward legislation for an elected second chamber.  It is a commitment to work to build a consensus on the issue.   

If anyone spots a consensus, do let me know.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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15 Responses to It is not in the manifesto

  1. Lord Norton,

    This indeed a fascinating issue — and we Canadians are facing the same with respect to reforming our upper chamber (Senate) into an elected body. I hope that you’ll forgive me for not having looked through all your archives on this subject, but if you do indeed oppose such reform, I imagine that you’re concerned that an elected upper chamber (which presumably would need to be renamed a Senate) would naturally become more assertive, break with the Salisbury Convention, and threaten responsible government.

    You might my analysis of the Canadian situation interesting because it is so similar. Parliamentum contains a drop-down menu, and one of the topics is “Senate Reform”.

    Sincerely,

    James W.J. Bowden (author of Parliamentum)

    • Princeps Senatus says:

      Hi James,
      While we wait for Lord Norton to respond to your posts, I hope you would not be offended if I were to respond to some of your points.
      While the House of Lords and the Canadian Senate have the superficial similarity of being wholly appointed upper chambers, there are a couple of significant distinguishing differences between the two that render a straightforward comparison of restructuring them moot.
      Firstly, the Canadian Senate is a body with a fixed membership, which is regionally allocated. The regional allocation of Senate seats is what causes specific states and regions (such as Western Canada) to argue for and against Senate reform. The fixed membership of the Senate also means that after a long period of rule by one party, the Senate may be packed with members loyal to that party and they could play havoc with the legislative program of the government of another political persuasion. Neither constraint apply to the House of Lords. Each incoming government can create an infinite number of life peers to modify the composition of the House and it is not restrained by a regional allocation.
      Secondly, the membership of the House of Lords is mainly determined by the Royal grant of a peerage. A peerage can be granted as an honour and not only as membership of the Lords. This allows a non-political membership which is not granted only on the basis of political persuasion. If memory serves me right, Lord Puttnam (David Puttnam, film producer) pointed out that six experts on climate change sit in the Lords. You can be assured that they can speak with more authority on their topic than any politician, no matter how convincingly elected.
      The existence of the crossbenches, a group of independent members of the Lords that do not take any party whips, is to my knowledge unique. They include among their ranks retired generals, senior judges, doctors and businessmen. No such independent group exists in the Senate. This kind of independent expertise would be almost certain be destroyed in an elected House, which would be at best a poor cousin to, and at worst a caricature of, the House of Commons down the corridor.
      The Lords has famously been described as a full-time body of part-time members. There is no salary for members of the Lords. They thus work externally and bring external expertise into the legislative process. It can be argued that they live in the “real world” more than Members of the Commons.
      Finally, the Lords is more popular than it may appear at first sight, especially among young people. In the Lords youth event in 2010, when students of schools from deprived areas in London debated whether to go in for an elected, hybrid or appointed chamber or abolition altogether, a significant plurality (about 48%) voted to keep an appointed House (http://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-outreach/house-of-lords-chamber-event-2010.pdf). The TSR site on Lords reform (http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=1885787) suggests a plurality want to keep the status-quo.
      If the Lords were to be abolished, whatever follows would be but a sorry shadow of it. And it would be impossible to recreate the ethos that pervades the independent and expertise-based Lords. Let’s keep it as it is.

      • First Senator,

        You’re exactly right about the main differences between the Canadian Senate and the House of Lords, centring on the fixed regional membership. Our Confederation Debates show that the Framers deliberately eschewed the British convention of packing the House of Lords, precisely because the effectiveness or influence of the House of Lords decreased in proportion to its size. George Brown and John A. Macdonald spoke out against “swamping” the Senate with fresh appointees. There are a few “independent” Senators comparable to the “cross-benchers” of the Lords, but they do not constitute a large or influential voting block. Section 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867 does, however, contain a provision similar to the “swamping” principle as an emergency in order to break deadlock: the Prime Minister advises the Queen of Canada (rather than the Governor General, as per the normal procedure) to appoint either 4 or 6 additional Senators in order to break a deadlocked vote. Thus far, only Prime Minister Mulroney has invoked this procedure, in 1990, in order to prevent the Senate from blocking a confidence matter (the creation of the federal sales tax).

        The elected Australian Senate took this principle even further: their constitution stipulates that the Australian Senate must be approximately one-half the size of their House of Representatives. I wouldn’t have gone that far, because I view upper chambers not as houses of the federation, or “the states’ house”, but as houses of review, rather like the legislative councils that 5 of the 6 Australians states still maintain. Strangely, 5 of the 10 Canadian provinces also used to possess legislative councils, but all were eliminated by the 1960s.

        Proponents of the current appointed Senate in Canada make similar arguments about the expertise of the Senators vis-a-vis the Members of Parliament. Perhaps I cannot adequately address this argument in my preference for a limited elected chamber. I did not know that Lords do not collect salaries; the Canadian Senators rake in handsome compensation of around $150,000 per year, and they tend not to maintain their occupations outside of the Senate. In that respect, I find the House of Lords superior to the Canadian Senate, and the Lords can probably make a more realistic claim to being experts in their field than can many Canadian Senators, who are in fact appointees of pure patronage. For instance, after the election of May 2011, Prime Minister Harper appointed three failed Conservative candidates to the Senate — which I find utterly objectionable and offensive to the democratic principle of election. PM Harper also appointed the former chairman of various Conservative electoral campaigns.

        One last observation: I found one of Lord Norton’s commentaries on YouTube in which he characterizes the reform of the Lords into an elected body as abolition and replacement; in Canada, we generally accept that reform of the Senate into an elected chamber does not constitute abolition and replacement, merely reform of the existing institution. But perhaps Lord Norton and Baroness Boothroyd made a more accurate characterization, given the nature of the appointed houses.

        James

      • Lord Norton says:

        James W. J. Bowden: Many thanks for the detailed contribution. I have been keeping track of developments in Canada – we have had occasional contributions on what is happening – and the attempts to craft an elected second chamber. There are significant differences but some of the points of principle apply in both cases. As you have observed, we make the point that if the present second chamber is done away with we are not talking about reform but abolition and its replacement by a new body. Talking about an elected ‘House of Lords’ is misleading. We are talking about an elected Senate.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Sigh.

    How many times can Mr Clegg regurgitate what he hopes to be true before he is asked to apologise to the House of Commons for misleading its Members?

  3. I should add, there is no consensus in Canada about Senate Reform either. Here, the fault lines tend to divide along region; Western Canadians and rural southern Ontarians have historically favoured reform more so than Quebeckers and Atlantic Canadians. I’m writing a paper (which will hopefully become an article) comparing Senate Reform in Canada and Lords reform in the UK, and describing the implications of each on Westminster parliamentarism and the Crown-in-Parliament as a whole.

    I must admit, coming from Western Canadian classical liberal stock myself, I would prefer some kind of elected upper chamber — but only provided that its legislative powers were limited and made clearly inferior to those of the House of Commons. All of us in the know certainly bear in mind the Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975 as evidence of the damage that a powerful second chamber can wreak on the system as a whole.

  4. Surely if all Conservative MPs were elected on the basis that they would then work to secure a consensus for a mainly elected chamber, then they would thus need to ‘fall into line’ and support legislation providing a mainly-elected chamber?

  5. maude elwes says:

    Manifesto’s are notably vague. And even when they are not, you cannot count on the promise they pretend they will honour.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maude elwes: They can certainly be vague, though the real problem in my view is how they have grown in length and the sheer number of commitments made. I think it would be much healthier if the parties did not compete with one another for the sheer number and ambition of promises embodied in manifestos. Although there is notable attention devoted to occasions when manifesto commitments are not met – or parties vote contrary to what they have prromised – these are the exception and not the rule. Parties actually have a good track record of implementing manifesto promises. That, though, may be the problem given what I have just said about them!

    • maude elwes says:

      Lord Norton,

      If the various parties don’t compete on promises, they will not win an election. The masses always vote for those they feel will give them nearest to the ideal they seek. And each party likes to promise to give what they ‘know’ the people want, as that is the way to power.

      And as far as keeping promises are concerned, LN, if that were true they would never be voted out of office. Or, alternatively, the electorate would not shy away from the ballot box the way they do. Apathy would not be part of the British voter problem.

      No party can satisfy those who vote, simply because there is no clear separation between them. Even though they try very hard to pretend there is.

  6. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Loed Norton,
    I am sure you are aware of the very nebulous “platform(s)” of American Presidential politics and congressional politics and how they compare with the relatively fixed and specific manifestos of British Parliamentary parties. Which, however vaguely worded one can pick up in hand and say — “This and no other document is our specific manifesto for this current Parliament”. This phenomena relates to larger issues. It is tied to a certain view of governmental technique and expertise. Although Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, now President Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have all written books — none of them have a history of writing, editing and publishing books and short documents on the technical and political aspects of governance — Newt Gingrich does. Should Speaker Gingrich be elected President then I think, for the first time since Wilson, the British and the top tier of European governments and parliaments will be dealing with an American administration which is at the top their equal and peer in technical,legislative and theoretical matters. Of Course Woodrow Wilson was no great success in the end. I am speaking merely of professionalism in the broadest sense.

    I am not endorsing nor pointedly failing to endorse Speaker Gingrich. It is too early in the process for me to do either but he is more akin to your own milieu from a technical point of view than even such a well prepared president as George H. W. Bush, a “wonk” such as Clinton, or the highly intelligent Carter. He would represent a profound shift in the national attitude towards governmental expertise. This has not much been reported but is really significant.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: Indeed, I am aware of Newt Gingrich’s background; not that much is made of the fact of his PhD (or the topic of his thesis). I am also aware that he is fighting as an outsider despite being an experienced insider.

      I could not help noting that he took great offence – regarding it is wholly inappropriate – to be questioned about his attitudes to marriage and infidelity, a stance I note he did not take when President Clinton was being challenged on the matter!

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,
        I am pleased but not surprised to see you are staying abreast of these matters…

  7. Thank you, Lord Norton. I will certainly this difference in interpretation of our respective upper chamber debates. I understand why you and others would consider the reform of the Lords into an elected chamber a matter of abolition and replacement rather than reform: an “elected Lord” is surely a contradiction in terms.

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