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Why Dugdale’s Lords reform plans are plain wrong

Terry MurdenThe favourite to become Scottish leader of the Labour party is tying herself in knots over the House of Lords.

In a self-penned piece for The Guardian, Kezia Dugdale is calling for reform of the second chamber that would not only introduce directly-elected members for the first time, but relocate it to Glasgow. Is she serious?

Ms Dugdale has been thin on policy since putting her hand up and volunteering to be Jim Murphy’s successor. Apart from wanting a “better” Scotland (who doesn’t?) it’s difficult to identify a specific Dugdale idea. At least we now have one. Trouble is, it falls apart under examination.

Reform of the Lords has been a political ambition for generations of politicians. The Commons debated the hereditary right to sit in the Lords as long ago as 1886. In 1907 a government-commissioned report made recommendations on how peers should be selected in the Lords. No action was taken. Three years later the new Liberal government proposed a “strong and efficient second chamber”, but failed to follow it through. In 1911 the Leader of the Opposition proposed that members be indirectly elected in a bill which was later dropped.

And so it has continued ever since. In her article today Ms Dugdale notes that in his first term former leader Tony Blair reduced the number of hereditary peers and planned to go further until “other priorities” pushed Lords reform down the agenda.

Ms Dugdale is the latest to leap on this agenda on the back of Lord Sewell’s resignation over his alleged involvement in a sex and drugs scandal. This, together with the outrageous £300 a day “turning up” allowance, provide good reasons for a shake-up.

However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Revelations of a scandal involving one peer should be dealt with by the legal process, not by wholesale change to the institution. It may require a tightening in the code of conduct and a review of allowances. The most radical change should be the introduction of a time-limit on service, perhaps to three years. The institution itself should undergo a change of name to banish its aristocratic pomposity and the implied class superiority that it commands over ordinary citizens.

Kezia DugdaleBut the case for having an elected second chamber is not, as Ms Dugdale claims, unanswerable. The last thing the Lords, or the country, needs is another batch of elected representatives. We are already over-governed with councillors, MPs, MSPs, and MEPs.

Direct elections are seen as a means of cleaning up bad practice. The regular misbehaviour by MPs shows that the Lords does not have a monopoly on this score. The issue is not whether elections would achieve improvement in decorum, but whether they would improve government itself. This is unlikely.

Living in a democracy does not mean that everyone who “governs” or holds a position of power has to be elected. There are many thousands of unelected individuals making decisions over our lives from head teachers to police commanders, and doctors to business leaders. Government itself is populated by heads of quangos and civil servants with considerable authority.

Appointments on merit are the measure of most people’s jobs and in the case of the Lords an appointed chamber makes considerable sense. It is far better that we have a chamber comprising those who have contributed wisdom and experience – whether in science or the arts, the law or sport. They can bring something of real value that elected chambers often lack. A second chamber filled with party placemen and women should be opposed at every turn.

Therefore, the issue rests on the quality and process of making these appointments and is why a time limit needs to be imposed to ensure no one sees the chamber as a resting place, or a means to top up their pay cheque.

Ms Dugdale’s call to relocate the Lords to Glasgow looks like another attempt to “Scotify” the UK government. Why on earth should this be taken seriously by those already horrified by the continual drift of power north of the border?

There is little logic even in Ms Dugdale’s own argument.

In “campaigning” for the Lords to be relocated to Glasgow she states: “Where better than the biggest city of a nation that has just reaffirmed its commitment to keeping our country together? A yes city.”

In making such a statement she makes a fundamental misjudgement. Glasgow was actually a Yes city, but Yes to independence, not for keeping the UK together. Putting the Lords in a city that has just rejected rule from London and pledged its support to a party dedicated to abolition of the second chamber is plain bonkers.

No wonder Labour is in disarray.

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