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Thursday, 1 August 2013

Why I'm disappointed in the new appointments to the Lords

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice 
I'm not the world's greatest admirer of the House of Lords.

I find "the other place" such an affront to democracy and, indeed, fairness and equality that it's a principal reason for my decision to vote "Yes" in next year's independence referendum. Some long-held liberal aspirations can be best met only through securing independence, given that any other imminent constitutional reform is as likely as a James Anderson double-century at Old Trafford tomorrow. At least in the eventuality of a "Yes" outcome, Scotland will not have to concern itself with a bloated, self-important, non-representative relic of the distant past.

It's not just the nature of the House of Lords that irks me, but how the appointments are made. The brief dalliance with the notion of "people's peerages" has clearly not had much effect on the way peerages were offered thereafter. The Lords remains the preserve of the great and the good, the utterly respectable, the retired politicians and those close to their party leaders. What has been so thoroughly disappointing is the continued lack of real diversity combined with a complete lack of adventurous thinking.

Let's firstly take a look at the ten new Lib Dem peers. We have three former politicians and one high profile would-be politician: Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, the former SDP MP, first party president of the Liberal Democrats and current party treasurer; former Welsh Assembly member Catherine Humphreys and the ex-MSP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, Jeremy Purvis. Lib Dem Voice describes Purvis as "the brains behind the Scottish Party’s manifesto in 2011" - obviously then the ideal candidate for elevation to the Peerage.  There's also Brian Paddick, the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police and "I'm a celebrity..." contestant. Having twice unsuccessfully stood for London mayor, clearly the ability to lose elections is a pre-requisite to entry to the Lords - proving there's hope for me.

We also have some of the other usual suspects - those close to the leaders, involved in the decision making processes and with extensive professional experience of the Westminster bubble.  Firstly there's Olly Grender, who was the Lib Dems' Communications Director under Paddy Ashdown and, later, Nick Clegg’s chief communications person. Secondly,we have Alison Suttie, Nick Clegg's Deputy Chief of Staff.

After the professional politician types, maybe we have some real people? Cathy Bakewell seems interesting - the former leader of Somerset County Council who has previously taken on the issue of removing barriers for people becoming councillors. Lib Dem Voice considers that she "may have similar ideas about addressing our under-representation of women in other areas." Just women? Hmmm. She seems a very human and capable person from the little I know. She also has an MBE, so self-evidently fits the respectable category.

Next  up is Rumi Vergee. Another respectable type - a CBE. He's a hugely successful businessman, owning a China shop in Mayfair and whose most famous accomplishment is bringing Domino's to the UK.  He also does a lot of charity work. Another interesting person is James Palumbo of Ministry of Sound fame who, unsurprisingly, "has an interest in drug culture" according to LDV - who are also keen to point out that he's probably the "coolest member of the House of Lords". There was me thinking it was Baroness Trumpington.

Our final new peer is Zahida Manzoor.  I must admit to having no previous knowledge of her. She appears to have very little previous involvement in the party, which does make her inclusion a bit odd. I am therefore indebted to LDV's introduction: "trained as a nurse and midwife, Zahida’s career has taken her in 3 different directions, from serving on health authorities, to being Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales. She’s also a former deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and is the patron of the Ethnic Minority Disability Association." At least she sounds like someone who's incredibly driven. Apparently, she hails from Bradford, which LDV feels will "give the north of England an added presence in Parliament". Watch out, George Galloway.

And that is our selection. All of those people are inherently capable. They all appear to be good philosophical liberals. And Nick Clegg, so anxious to do his bit to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are a party of equality and diversity, has intentionally ensured that the list is gender-balanced and that there are two appointments of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This in a sense is what is most frustrating: it seems to Nick Clegg that diversity is a simple question of gender and ethnicity. Clegg could have been really bold and opted for a few people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. He might have selected one or two that were less "respectable", or at least not obviously establishment figures. We're also still waiting for our first transgender parliamentarian - and it's not as if we're short of intelligent, driven and committed trans people in the Lib Dems. All in all, the most depressing thing about the announcement was how predictable it was. Where are the grassroots activists?

The other parties fared no better (even the Greens selected Jenny Jones, a former London Assembly member and Deputy Mayor) although I commend the Labour Party for having the courage to put forward Doreen Lawrence. The Conservatives were typically unadventurous, packing their appointments list with former politicians and business types, as if they wish to prove that the best way to become a peer is to give large sums of money to political parties - although it is interesting to see that my Conservative opponent in Renfrewshire North and West, Annabel Goldie, now has a seat in the House of Lords.

Today's announcement has shown three things: a) that the House of Lords is a needlessly ever-expanding, over-expensive chamber, b) that the appointments system rewards those with either a vested interest in the status quo or who are part of their party's "establishment", and c) that the Liberal Democrats still don't understand the real meaning of diversity.

It's that latter statement that particularly disappoints me. And clearly not only me. Former MP Lembit Opik took to twitter to "salute the egalitarianism of the Dear Leader. There is no such thing as patronage in the Lib Dems." I feel he may have been more than a little sardonic...