Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Last Sunday, as I performed my weekly ritual of tuning into Andrew Marr, cafetière at the ready, I was met with an unexpected proposal. The government has recently teased plans to move the House of Lords away from the Palace of Westminster up north, to York. A somewhat radical decision, the proposal would see some 794 peers give up their ancient abode and head to Yorkshire, leaving behind the city they have called home for hundreds of years. The proposal has set the tone for their dialogue with northern voters. In an attempt to placate those calling out for better representation for the North, they have offered up a proposal which is unfeasible. The funds, effort and infrastructure needed in order to enact such a pledge do not seem tangible.
The Lords is one aspect of our democracy which has long been crying out for reform. Our unelected second chamber still resides as a crucial part of the running of Westminster, holding the government to account and often providing indispensable expertise. Still, the fact remains that the chamber is far from being representative of the public consensus or demographic in this country. While it is essential that our political system has a second chamber, a body such as the House of Lords is not the answer. In its stead should be an outfit which has representation at its heart
First, following on from the 1999 House of Lords Act, all 92 hereditary peerages should be scrapped. Second, rather than rendering the House of Lords an elected body, it would perhaps be preferable to see it retain its appointment-only status. But instead of the current system of nomination being solely the responsibility of those already within the political establishment, there should be an aspect of public involvement, by nominations or write-ups. Those nominated should have expertise in a particular area or have made a robust contribution to an aspect of public life in areas such as the arts, politics or science. No more unsuccessful commons candidates and no more transparent nepotism.
Even so, moving the House of Lords to York does not mean that the North will miraculously obtain the attention and representation it deserves. While York is a fantastic city, the infrastructure in the North of England is just not fit for purpose. As it stands, it takes longer to travel from Oxenholme (Cumbria) to York than it does from Oxenholme to London. What would be the point of a northern second chamber, if it was, for many, a nightmare to get to? If the government wishes to truly bring northern voters on side and retain them in coming elections, this should be their main priority. Better transport links across the north will improve productivity and stimulate economic growth. According to Transport for the North: “a transformed North could see a 4% increase in productivity, equating to an increase in Gross Value Added (GVA) of almost £100 billion, and create up to 850,000 new jobs”.
At the time of writing, the government was preparing to re-nationalise Northern Rail. While this decision is a welcome one, let’s hope that it lays the groundwork for the development of infrastructure in the North. Instead of preparing such performative and obsolete gestures, the government should focus upon enacting tangible change. Perhaps then a new, improved and reformed second chamber will be welcomed with open arms by the people of the North. Until then, it should stay in Westminster.