The Times poll today showing that the majority of peers are not only opposed to Lords reform but feel it would be “unconstitutional” to proceed without their blessing begs an important question: in a country without a codified constitution, what on earth is “constitutional” anyway?
Where the peers may have a point is that when the courts looked at the Parliament Act’s applicability with regard to the Hunting Act in 2005, there was a suggestion by some Law Lords that judges might be able to strike down attempts to use the Parliament Act to affect constitutional changes. Of course, this has not been tested, but it is at least contestable and it is just conceivable that the Law Lords might come down hard on any attempt to use the Parliament Act to force through an elected second chamber.
Yet while the use of the Parliament Act may be considered illegal, it could equally be argued that for the Lords to block reform, and thus make the use of the Parliament Act necessary, could only be done by steamrollering over the conventions which have allowed the House of Lords to stay its execution for the past 60 years. The Salisbury Convention was introduced specifically to prevent the unelected Lords thwarting the will of an elected Commons. Its precise formulation has come under strain with the advent of governments being formed with just 36% of the vote – and let’s not get started on how it should work with a coalition government. Despite this, nobody has contested the basic underlying principle at its core: public will, as expressed through the ballot box via the party system and the House of Commons, should always win out.
It is with this in mind that I feel the need to point out that all three major parties fought the last election with a specific manifesto commitment to reform the Lords. It would be an absolute scandal for the Lords to presume to exercise a veto, akin to the worst examples of clericocracy that we are all too ready to condemn when it happens in Iran. By all means let’s see the Lords doing their job and scrutinising the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but blocking it outright should be considered out of bounds.
All three party leaders should come down on this, and hard. Anyone else wondering why they haven’t done so already?
UPDATE: I’ve written a piece on Comment is Free, building on this.
You might also be interested in Mark Pack’s article about dissolution honours on Left Foot Forward.
And finally, I should have urged everyone to sign Unlock Democracy’s petition on reforming the House of Lords.