Political

Reforming the interim peers panel: a pragmatic solution that gets used is better than a principled one which is mothballed

As I wrote last month, the big question for the party’s consultation over its ‘interim peers panel’ system is one missing from the consultation paper: what will the party leader agree to go along with?

I deeply dislike the unelected nature of the House of Lords. I appear to be in a tiny minority in thinking it dreadfully arrogant of the political establishment that after each election, when a bunch of MPs have been voted out by the public, the establishment then turns round and gives some of those very same people a seat in life in Parliament in response. ‘You lost your seat? Here’s one of life instead’.

I don’t blame the individuals who, given the offer, take it up. They are just following the existing rules of the game (and some have gone to be keen supporters of Lords reform). Alas, almost no-one else agrees with me, however, on the absurd arrogance of all this, and that is one reason why we are still lumbered with an unelected Lords.

So I’m also a strong supporter of attempts to make the system more democratic by other routes. Kudos to the Green Party for democratically deciding which of its members would get the nod when it was decided to offer an ennoblement to someone from that party. (And for those in the Liberal Democrats who have previously argued that any such system would be illegal, unconstitutional, an affront to the Sovereign’s power and a precursor to the end of days, notice how the world didn’t end?)

On paper, the Liberal Democrats have had a democratic system too for many years, with a panel of people elected by conference representatives from whom the party leader is then meant to select his or her appointments to the Lords, adding in one more name of their own if the wish.

In theory, because in practice none of the three party leaders since this interim peers panel system was created have been happy with going along with it, and none has diligently followed it. Any reform to it therefore needs to start from appreciating that if three leaders in a row have not been happy to use it, we should be realistic about the low odds of any future leader doing so either – and therefore reform it with an eye to what sort of reforms would make a party leader more likely to implement it and would make it harder for them to ignore it.

A little bit of tinkering with the existing system is unlikely to achieve either.

What does that mean? First, it means appreciating that when a party leader nominates a group of people to the Lords, they are doing just that – nominating a group, all at the same time. That means they are not just picking individuals on their own merit, but a group to add to an existing team. As I’ve written about selecting Parliamentary candidates:

Putting together a good team, whether in politics, elsewhere in the public sector, in the private sector or for voluntary groups, is always about more than just the individual merits of the team members. It is also about having the right balance of skills, breadth of experience and a group of people who can work together so as to be more, rather than less, than the sum of their parts.

Having a good Parliamentary team matters for its direct impact on Parliament, and matters also because the Parliamentary team is a key component of the party’s wider policy making process, its shop front to the public and for the major party it plays in the leadership of our organisation.

That applies just as much for the Lords as it does for the Commons, save that it is easier to get right for the Lords as groups of people are appointed all in one go. Democratic elections of people to a panel are good but also, as we know from experiences with selections for the Commons, not a great way to select the best overall team as people are voting for individuals, not for a team mix.

So a reformed interim peers panel should reflect the understandable desire of party leaders to get a team mix right, and face up therefore to the implication – party leaders need more flexibility than the current system in theory offers. Offer up more flexibility, and then they are more likely to actually use the system. Two-thirds elected via the interim peers panel system, one-third selected by the leader would be a good balance.

But it should also be harder for a party leader to ignore the system. The wider the democratic mandate selections are seen to have, the more that is achieved. The party schedules an all-postal ballot of party members every two years already with the Presidential election. Make that a Presidential and peers panel election, and there can be much greater democratic input at not unreasonable cost. (I would also throw in a regional element to it, having members from each region vote for regional candidates, who then make up an overall list, as that way we can get geographical balance even though the party’s membership is not so balanced. London-list style zipping and BME-balance can also be easily added in to help the system overcome some of the inbuilt biases that come from the wider state of society.)

Opening up the electorate to the wider party members would still mean that many party activists would do well. It would also mean that a person newer to party politics with a very impressive and relevant professional career has a decent chance. Just look at Parliamentary selections to see how both sorts of people can fight and win.

As a minor but helpful detail, giving party members more power over who ends up in Parliament not only makes a rotten system a bit better, it also makes party membership more attractive to the party’s supporters and helpers.

Having been elected to the interim peers panel last time, I don’t know whether such a system would help or hinder my chances in future. What I do know, is that it would be a better system, one more likely to be used and one that would make the Lords a little bit more democratic until that day when we can finally reform it.

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