1918 was a triumph for democracy that came out of the tragedy of war, as three times more people were entitled to vote in the general election than in pre-war times. Unfortunately, that democratic revolution stopped at the doors of the Commons. A hundred year later and the Lords remains an old fashioned male bastion: only a quarter of the peers are women. To this day the galleries overlooking the Lords Chamber are called “Peeresses Galleries” – the place where Lords wives are supposed to sit to watch the men debate. The simplest way to accelerate change would be to have an elected second chamber using a system of fair votes.
Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have a higher proportion of women elected than either houses of Parliament. Both use a mixed system of PR and first past the post. The number of women MEP’s the UK sends to the European Parliament under a system of PR is also relatively high at 41%, around the same as women on the London and the Welsh Assemblies. This may all be a coincidence, but I suspect that the mix of modern political institutions and PR has opened a space for women to thrive.
Replacing the Lords in this way would be fitting in this centenary year for women’s suffrage because in 1918 it wasn’t just 8.5 million middle class women who benefited, as the reforms also gave the vote to 5.6 million more men after their voting age was lowered to 21 and the property qualification was abolished. Democracy grew and renewed after the disasters of the 1st World War, although it was another 10 years before working class women would finally get the vote.
Another aspect of this democratic upsurge happened in the Edwardian era and almost led to Lords abolition in 1909 as the peers rejected the people’s budget’ put forward by the Government. Unfortunately, the stand-off between Parliament and the Lords resulted in unfinished business, as the second chamber backed down in the face of Lloyd George’s threat to create four hundred new peers to abolish the place.
I have heard several peers and commentators talking about threats to abolish the Lords if peers keep voting to reject a hard Brexit and all the Henry the 8th powers in the EU Withdrawal Bill, that are nothing but an executive power grab. As much as I support Brexit, I can’t support the government’s bill to withdraw from the EU unless it is seriously amended. This leaves me feeling that if the Lord’s gets abolished for doing the right thing and we finally get a second chamber elected by PR, then democracy will have triumphed in the end and so will women’s suffrage.