Benches in the House of Lords, by Permission of UK Parliament

To the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust“…

…House of Lords reform fails again, despite all three major parties promising it in their election manifestos in 2010. Sigh. Yet again progressives’ principles founder on the rocks of party interests, and yet again they either failed to spot the rocks, or — a more charitable interpretation — lacked enough power to steer round them.

At the end of the day, what is going on here is that the Commons does not want a more powerful Lords – most like it just the way it is, relatively toothless. This was not the case before various reforms last century, when an unelected peerage could and did strike down measures from the popularly elected government of the day. Worse, the Lords were clearly partisan – they would strike down measures proposed by a Labour government but allow the self-same ideas to pass if proposed by a Tory one.

Such power is now greatly diminished. The Parliament Act and its various amendments have gradually withdrawn the ability of the Lords to stop elected governments in their tracks; and the Lords themselves have changed out of all recognition, with goodly sized and roughly equal groups of Conservative and Labour peers, the dismissal of all but a handful of the hereditary (and traditionally Tory) peerage, and the creation of the Cross-benchers, appointed by a (fairly) independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.

So, why on earth would an elected government give back power and legitimacy to an Upper House by having it elected? Dressed up in the language of Land of Hope and Glory, this is precisely what Tory grandee Nicholas Soames railed against in a Telegraph opinion piece in July. It’s what many Labour politicians have been saying too, despite some of their pronouncements today.

I think Soames was largely trying to justify the continuing concentration of power when on just about any definition of democracy power ought to be more dispersed.

But I also want to suggest that some of this may have been unnecessary as well. In an article in The Political Quarterly back in 2007, I argued that the Lords possess important power already, but power of a deliberative kind. Especially since the rise of cross-benchers like Baroness Boothroyd and Lord Pannick, the Lords now represent the power of ‘the better argument’, to quote political philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas. It tackles governments not by force of numbers but by force of ideas and force of analysis.  What holds the Lords back is their lack of ability to force governments to rethink – they lack the ability to force decisions, an important element of deliberative institutions. But, by careful argument and analysis, they can and do undermine the credibility of courses of action — for example, the NHS reforms — which, over time, undermine the credibility of governments.

The fact that such Lords are not elected but appointed for life is a key ingredient in that power. The fact that they do not owe their continuing position to a party machine is the primary reason why they are free to scrutinise and criticise the powerful. This is why the justices of the US Supreme Court are appointed for life – it is to protect their independence of judgement.

The implication is this: if the Lords are elected they will lose a key element of their deliberative power; and  if other parts of the British political system are left as they are, including the dominance of the Commons, that deliberative power will not be replaced. We will have drawn their last remaining teeth, and left majoritarian government less constrained than when we started.

Surely that is not what progressives want. Much could be gained by booting out the remaining hereditaries (and, for my money, the Bishops too – disestablishment, anyone?!), limiting party appointments and boosting the Appointments Commission. Much could also be gained by taking a less reverential attitude to the Salisbury Doctrine too, which protects Commons dominance.

But by taking on a battle they had no realistic hope of winning, the liberals have probably scuppered their chances of making less dramatic but very significant deliberative changes. Maybe, given the fact that Soames promoted some of these ideas in his Telegraph piece, they are hoping he will be magnanimous in victory. I wouldn’t bet on it.