A Squad system for the Lords

The publication of Boundary Commission Proposals for the next election has sparked a lively debate. Inevitably, there is a very close interest in this matter from MPs themselves, some of whom find that the new proposals cut up their beloved constituency into several pieces.

Every Boundary Review is certain to upset somebody, but this one is particularly difficult because of the arbitrary decision of the previous Coalition Government to simultaneously and arbitrarily cut the size of the House of Commons.

There is a further element in that a new rule has been introduced to make each Parliamentary constituency contain a closer number of registered voters. Although this sounds superficially fair, the way that the Government has gone about it has meant that two million registered voters are not even counted for the purpose of drawing up the boundaries. On the Labour side, we believe that this has been deliberately done to diminish our electoral fortunes.

It will be difficult to reverse this part of what the Government is doing, but there is a growing concern, across all Parties, about the reduction in the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600.

This was initially proposed by David Cameron as an austerity measure to reduce the ‘cost of politics’. Circumstances have changed radically in such a way that I believe this proposal no longer commands majority support in the House of Commons. There are a number of reasons for this.

1) The Government is reducing the number of elected MPs whilst adding to the number of unelected Peers, exploding the argument that this is about reducing the ‘cost of politics’. What it is doing in practice is reducing the level of democratic accountability in our political system.

2) As a result of the Brexit referendum, and on the assumption that Brexit really does mean Brexit, the UK will no longer have elected MEPs. So the cost of politics is being reduced at a European level and there will be fewer elected politicians in any case.

3) All of the issues that came under the competence of MEPs and the European Union will transfer to Parliament, but will have to be handled by fewer MPs than pre-Brexit. It was already acknowledged that the level of scrutiny of issues dealt with in Europe needed to improve even before full competence for those issues is returned to the British Parliament.

4) The Government has not proposed any corresponding reduction in Ministers. The number of MPs is being reduced by 50, but Britain’s bloated payroll vote in Parliament means that over a fifth of MPs are compelled to support collective responsibility and vote with the Government. This already high percentage will be increased by the reduction in the number of elected members. Many backbench colleagues on the Conservative side are extremely unhappy about this prospect and its implications for the effectiveness of Parliamentary scrutiny of a powerful executive.

So what is to be done?

The Government could solve this whilst keeping its equalisation of constituencies reform but working much harder to ensure everyone is on the register and then moving towards automatic registration of voters as soon as that is technically achievable.

For all the reasons outlined above however, it should abandon plans to cut the number of elected members and instruct the Boundary Commission to redraw their proposals based on 650 rather than 600 seats.

Lords reform is notoriously difficult, not least because the Commons is split three ways across Party lines on this matter. There are those like me who would like to see an elected Second Chamber with clearly laid-out, limited powers. There are others who believe an elected Chamber would inevitably become too powerful and challenge the authority of the House of Commons, and feel it is best left pretty much as an appointed House. And then there are the abolitionists.

On the principle that we should never let perfection become the enemy of the good, and that politics is the art of the possible, it seems to me that only an imaginative initiative could deal with the problem of the bloated size of the House of Peers.

I have suggested in the Commons that a lesson could be taken from sport. We could introduce a squad system in the House of Lords, capping the number of active Peers at any one time to say, 500. Initially, the numbers would be allocated in proportion to the current make-up of the Lords. Each Party group and the Crossbenchers would, from amongst themselves, nominate which Peers were actively members of their squad, and entitled to speak and vote.

This is in effect what already happens with hereditary peers who are limited to 93, although ideally they would be abolished in this reform.

Peers not selected could retain their titles, and even have lunch in the Lords if they so wished, but would not be entitled to an attendance allowance or access to the other political trappings of a Peerage.

In other words, Peers would be brought onto the bench, rather than off the bench, as happens in the sporting world. There is no reason why Party groups could not be free to bring onto the bench a Peer with a particular expertise provided they substituted another Peer out of the squad.

It might even become an annual political event when the squads were announced, just like the hullaballoo around the announcement of the Ryder Cup squad or the British and Irish Lions: perhaps not.

Whatever the solution, the current growth in the size of the Lords is unsustainable, and the proposals the cut the number of elected MPs is constitutionally dangerous. At some point soon, the Commons, I am sure, find a way to express its view in a vote. The Government would be better to pre-empt that defeat by abandoning their cull of elected Members.