As liberals, the sanctity of freedom is absolutely fundamental. However, “freedom” is a concept and state prodigiously difficult to define.
In relation to the current international event – in particular in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq – we seem to increasingly measure freedom in the ability to elect your own government or political system.
George Bush (don’t worry, I’m not a particular fan) boasts about the continued growth of global freedom and democracy – ye ha! But before our government – and that of the U.S. – is able to preach about the need for democracy we need to decide how fair and representative our system is at home.
However perverse it may sound, the House of Lords is in fact more representative of the British electorate than the supposedly democratic House of Commons! Of the political members: Lab 48%; Con 36 % and LD 15%, comparing reasonably favourably to 35%, 32% and 22% at the General Election. Certainly rather better than the House of Commons does on seats.
So in a way the Lords is fairer than the Commons. There’s just one small, tiny problem – no elections to the Lords. Perhaps not the best form of fairness in a democracy …
And in a strange way, the Lord’s success corrodes our democracy. Here we have an unelected house, yet its make up better reflects public opinion than the Commons. It’s in the Lords that you find most of the meaningful votes (i.e. the ones which aren’t simply stitched up by the government’s whips). It’s in the Lords that on most topics you find the most genuine and well-informed debate on issues.
Not looking good for the Commons so far is it? And hardly a great advertisement for democracy when the non-democratic performs so much better.
It makes the Lords not so much the last bastion of freedom as a running advert for the drawbacks of our Commons democracy.
The answer of course is not to populate the Commons with those recently de-housed hereditary Peers from the other place, but rather to heed the lesson and seriously improve our democracy.
That’s why we need to reform the first-past the post voting system so that we have a voting system which produces results that generally reflect the wishes of the people.Without reform, Britain will continue to undergo long periods of rule by a single party without a popular mandate, leading to political leadership that is arrogant, out of touch and disengaged from the people of the country.
Remind you of anyone?
But in the interim, it’s crucial to have a House of Lords that acts appropriately as a balance to the flaws of the Commons.
It doesn’t do a bad job of that. Not perfect, but pretty good in the circumstances.
Civil liberties is an area where the Lords have, in many ways, surpassed the House of Commons.
Take the recent example of the ping-pong game on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill between the Lords and the Commons.
The resistance in the Lords allowed for a debate and scrutiny of such things as control orders and house arrests and this indirectly lead to – some – safeguarding of civil liberties.
Perhaps just because they do not have to worry about being re-elected the Lords can focus more on the longer-term impact of issues and on the minority views on points.
But the Lords also has a wealth of technical knowledge – and its members expect the government to be able to make a coherent and expert case to get its laws through.
What a contrast with the Commons. One small example – the government wants to do more to tackle the carrying of imitation firearms. An admirable intent. But it wants to increase jail terms, and I’m dubious this will really achieve anything other than a few short-term positive headlines for Labour in the tabloids. So I asked Charles Clarke what evidence he had that longer jail terms would work in this area? His answer – oooh, there’s been lots of speculation. That was it. Speculation. Nothing else.
Now, that’s not the sort of sloppiness that is so much harder to get away with in the Lords than in the Commons.
With the speed this government is introducing contentious new legislation, the Lords is needed to even more than in the past. In these tinderbox times, we must not rush to judgement.Draconian legislation made in haste is often poor legislation that removes civil liberties at a stroke – so easy to remove – so hard to regain. The House of Lords has therefore become even more important.
As a new MP, I sometimes find it hard to stop and breathe let alone get to grips with a new piece of legislation – there is just not enough time! The legislation that is being thrown at us – with no end in sight – is not only extremely complicated but also lengthy and voluminous.
Often badly drafted, ill-conceived, not thought through and very often similar if not exactly the same as existing legislation unused by the powers that be.
Remember the fuss over anti-terrorism deportations over the summer? First it was the law had to be changed. Then it was that old laws could be pressed into use. Then it was, ‘oh, the current laws are fine after all.’ And now – well who knows what next week will bring.
Labour hate it when the Lords makes them stop and pause for breath – but on the evidence of this and many other examples, a few more such pauses are just what we need.
Now, before this starts to sound like an advert for the virtues of the House of Lords, I must highlight its obvious failings. As Tony Blair famously noted, there is a natural conservative (small c) and Conservative party bias that comes in the House of Lords.
On issues such as gay rights and fox hunting it leaves a lot to be desired. It obstructed the change of age consent for homosexuals as well as the abolition of the unnecessary and pernicious Section 28.
The Lords are known as socially conservative – and real people have suffered as a result.
Clearly the house of Lords has acted illiberally in certain respects but it has also helped to preserve the liberal country that as Liberal Democrats we seek to protect.
Although it may have acted sensibly in the recent passed as a revising chamber for the Government’s pernicious legislation, its fundamentally unfair nature must not be overlooked and as Liberal Democrats we must seek a solution that allows a combination of election and expertise.
Until then, the Lords will be the last line of defence against the Big Brother tendencies of our illiberal government – it is essential we seek to design a democratic successor that includes the Lords’ most enlightening principles.
So – the House of Lords has, ironically, become the last bastion of freedom for some of the freedoms that we hold most dear – but that is a sad consequence of a failings of our democratic systems.