The proposals that Jack Straw has put forward for the reform of the House of Lords remind me why politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
Since the 1960s politics has lost its sense of vocation and become a profession. MPs are now paid a professional salary and there are recognised career paths that lead into the House of Commons: "lobbyist", "researcher", "campaigner" and so on. The number of people with either business or Union experience in the House of Commons has fallen sharply, while the number of MPs who were previously public sector workers has increased. Lawyers continue to be a large part of the legislature.
However, MPs have ceased to be real representatives of their constituencies and have become solely delegates of their party, on which they are entirely dependent to get elected. The independent MP remains a very rare beast- only four in the current Parliament. The number of seats under FPTP that are genuinely competitive is really quite small- so the key to being elected is merely to get the approval of a few tens of party activists. Safe seats can be in the gift of some very unrepresentative figures indeed.
The constitution of the House of Commons needs review- it is high time that every seat was a marginal and that votes directly related to seats- and that the system allowed for more and more independent minds and voices in the House.
If the House of Lords needs reform we should bear in mind several key principles, if it is not to become a pale imitation of the House of Commons- or worse.
Firstly there should be a broad range of non political figures- Bishops, representatives of other religions, business people, union leaders, community leaders should be in the Upper House ex officio. Often these leaders are members of the House of Lords now- and they make a profound contribution to the debate.
Secondly the mandate of the Lords should be different from the House of Commons. Firstly the cycle for the Lords should be a lot longer- and possibly, like the law lords today, it should be until retirement unless guilty of some gross abuse or crime. Perhaps also specifically non party seats should be elected to be cross benchers- including senior judges, as at present, but also including, for example, academics. The franchise therefore might not simply be related to where any given Lord chooses to represent, but might be University courts, for example. In fact once of the key advantages of the Lords today is that they are purely national and do not represent local constituencies. I saw Iain Dale suggesting counties as a basis for Lord representations, but under PR we could return to County constituencies for the House of Commons, so I do not see County positions for the Lords being necessary for the Commons. An exception to local representation might be that some MSPs or MAs or their specific representatives may be selected to represent the Scottish Parliament or Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies in the House of Lords.
As should be clear from the above, I do not approve of salaried members of the House of Lords- I do not think it necessary or wise to professionalise every level of Parliament.
The purpose of all these reforms- to both Lords and Commons is to call the Executive to heel. We have already got a Prime Minister who has done the worst thing a Prime Minister can do- he fought an illegal war. The failure of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the extremely honourable exception of Ming Campbell and the Liberal Democrats, is an example of what is wrong with the House of Commons. The abject dependence of MPs on their party machine renders honourable dissent career suicide for ambitious wannabe ministers.
After reform I would also suggest that the Executive may co-opt more outsiders into the Lords to serve as ministers- it happens now, but I would like to see a much broader range of brains and talents in government than simply those who have climbed the greasy pole of "researcher-lobbyist-leader of the opposition", for example.
Politics has become a closed shop- and this is one reason why so many are angry and disillusioned with our political class. It is time to open up the franchise, and create a freer market in political ideas than the current increasingly corrupt and intellectually bankrupt party system.
Electoral Reform for the House of Commons and a more open House of Lords, including a large elected component is now long overdue. Jack Straw's ideas are wrong, but by all means let us start the debate.