How Ironic: Unelected Peers Charged with Defending Democracy

18/02/2022 News

Next Wednesday, the 23rd of February, the Elections Bill will go to the House of Lords for Second Reading. Despite the hard work of the Democracy Defence Coalition, a broad working group of civil society organisations and academics opposing the bill, it left the Commons with all of its dangerous provisions intact. It’s up to peers now to realise the terrible consequences that this bill could have if passed in current form. 

The government is framing this bill as “common sense” policy, a natural continuation of electoral reform that is administrative and not political. We’ve seen the evidence. We know that’s not the case.

It’s quite clear to any paying attention what this Government is about: eschewing accountability, rejecting transparency, and looking out for themselves. They’re not interested in electoral integrity, they’re interested in power consolidation.

This is a partisan bill. It’s designed to enshrine minority rule even more than the status quo of dark money donations and first-past-the-post (FPTP) already does.

It’s fundamentally undemocratic. Not coincidentally, this bill comes amid plans to tear up the Human Rights Act, weaken Judicial Review, and limit our ability to protest peacefully.

Nonetheless, the Government’s dishonest framing proved effective in the Commons, despite opposition parties’ forceful arguments against the bill. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence that Voter ID, a partisan Electoral Commission, limited campaigning for charities, and an expansion of FPTP are all disastrous ideas for improving the state of our electoral system, Conservative MPs towed the party line.

Now it’s up to the Lords. Ironically, this unelected wing of Parliament may be democracy’s saving grace by forcing a U-turn on this bill at 2nd reading. Even if they don’t halt the bill, they may be able to defeat the Government on amendments, chipping away at harmful provisions like Voter ID. Indeed, this is what happened with the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, when the Lords stood up to authoritarian protest restrictions and defeated the Government on 14 different amendments.

Why is this ironic? Because the House of Lords itself isn’t democratic. In the words of Electoral Reform Society, the House of Lords is a fully-unelected “private member’s club“, and “the only time the public is allowed into the House of Lords is to pay the bill”.

LSE’s Democratic Audit Team summed it up nicely in their report on the House of Lords:

“The growth in Lords membership and costs is unsustainable, its territorial representation is lamentable, the UK’s fourth-largest party is boycotting it, and the current members lack all democratic accountability and legitimacy.”

In our efforts to reach peers as part of our campaign against the Elections Bill, we found that many peers do not have publicly listed contact information. It’s an opaque remnant of a hierarchical and aristocratic system of governance that looks nothing like a modern democracy.

And yet here we are, relying on a wholly unelected second chamber to protect the UK from the authoritarian whims of this government. We believe many peers will do the right thing, just as they did for the PCSC bill, but the irony cannot be understated.

What this situation tells us is that the UK desperately needs real democratic reform and not a partisan elections bill. 

Let’s listen to the experts, civil society, and the public when they say they want proportional representation, better regulation of campaign finance, automatic voter registration, and an end to unelected officials making policy with no democratic mandate.

It’s time we rebuild our democracy into something fit for the 21st century.