The equivalent debate in the Commons did not, as they say in postmodernist literature, hunt the big game. MPs dredged out specific incidents: will disability provision cover this disease? Will you accept that mothers are more likely to be sole carers than fathers? But they failed to ask, why are we talking in these terms, what was wrong with the old terms? What is the point of redistribution? Their adversarial tone leads to nitpicking. Reading a Commons debate, you’re left with a certain respect for MPs just for staying awake. But it is not the same respect that you’re left with after reading a debate in the Lords.
We should look at the defeat of the Owen-Hennessy amendment not as a failure but as the beginning of something – the beginning of a process in which Lords are lobbied directly; in which they take public opinion seriously but aren’t so cravenly people-pleasing that their debates sound like EastEnders; in which the taint of being the unelected chamber is offset by the fact that nobody voted for the other lot’s policies either; in which they might be pressurised by their party but a good proportion of them can withstand it. The Lords may have found their teeth (down the back of their sofa).
I really kind of love the idea that the House of Lords could be the place where the ‘big game’ of political ideas and policy proposals get discussed, without the members of the house needing to worry about appealing to an electorate.
I’m equally not necessarily that crazy about the make-up of the House of Lords – or rather, I’m conflicted about what I think it should be – and I’d quite like to see them be willing to debate that amongst themselves as well. I don’t like the idea of a wholly hereditary peerage (which, clearly, we’re not going to go back to), or the packing-of-the-house element that comes with appointing life peers in some cases. That said – some members of both groups come with a huge amount of expertise in some areas, and a lot of brain power, and their ideas are interesting and worth being involved in. It was noticeable last year, for instance, that some of the smartest ideas about the Digital Economy Bill (now the fairly lamentable #deact) came from hereditary peers, and that, currently, some of the strongest Liberal Democrat voices anywhere in politics are those of Shirley Williams and Lord Owen.
I do like that the possibility of getting a wide range of voices involved in a public debate and those voices being able to say what they think without having to worry about being re-elected – and then those voices having the ability to slow down legislation coming out of the Commons (if not to derail it entirely – much as I’d love to see them derail some of the current legislation, I also see the legitimacy problems with them being unelected).
I think you can see the problems of having two elected houses voting on legislation in the US right now, where the Senate have gone FilibusterHappy in the worst possible way and everything is getting stuck. You want the opinion and debate to make both politicians and the general electorate (who can then lobby their politicians) think – but without necessarily allying that to the ability to block legislation totally.
I hear tell that the Canadian model might be quite interesting as a comparison – and if anyone can point me the way of anything to read about that, I’d be very grateful!