How Labour’s next leader should approach House of Lords reform

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Everyone running to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is committed to fundamental change of parliament’s upper chamber – the House of Lords – and want it reformed or abolished. This is not new for Labour leaders, who have traditionally called for a change of this kind. I it is only the detail of the new arrangement on which Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer could disagree. How many members of the reformed chamber should there be? How would they be selected? And what different powers, if any, might they have? These questions go straight to the heart of the future of our parliamentary democracy.

The first point worth making is that a second chamber is worth having. To have only a House of Commons would be to create a parliamentary dictatorship: the majority will get whatever they want, whenever they want it. There would be no more substantive scrutiny than the government wanted to entertain. A great means for enacting manifesto commitments quickly, but no way to govern well.

So long as the body continues to exist, Labour should continue making appointments to the House of Lords. The alternative is to let this body slowly wither on the vine, or at least slowly extinguish Labour’s place in it. Until the Lords is changed, Labour would be choosing to make holding the government to account more difficult. Labour must do the best it can with the powers currently at its disposal.

A second chamber can, and does, play an invaluable role. The House of Lords is a chamber of scrutiny where detailed analysis of legislation happens by a body of members with a wealth of experience and expertise. A distinctive feature of our parliament is that we have world-leading experts in medicine and science as well as the arts, humanities and social sciences able to introduce bills and help scrutinise legislation, as well as serve on parliamentary committees.

But this leads directly to the main concern that very many will rightly have with the House of Lords: its undemocratic foundations. Members are unelected, with a small number of seats either inherited or given to the Church of England hierarchy. Perhaps they bring valued experience and expertise, but the selection process raises many issues and many more questions.

Until the institution is changed, the next leader should adopt Corbyn’s idea of nominating only those committed to the democratic transformation of the Lords. And what then? Reform is a thornier issue than it might seem at first glance. Making the Lords democratic will have consequences, as a democratic mandate could justify more powers. This would fundamentally change the relationship between the Commons and the Lords.

The gridlock we see in the US Congress between its elected representatives and senators could arrive in Westminster. While the Lords must be democratised, it should aim to enhance, rather than disrupt, the delicate balance between the two chambers.

The by-elections of hereditary peers must end. This was previously proposed by Lord Grocott, and gained strong cross-party support. Their membership has no place in 21st-century Britain. Numbers also matter. The second chamber should not be larger than the first, nor anything like the size it is today. There is a model for how to achieve a cutback in a report by Lord Burns, although this has been blocked by the government. These plans should not be shelved so that the government can pile up patronage.

Some argue that the Lords should be elected through a proportional system. In other words, winning 40% of the popular vote does not mean 40% of MPs, but it should earn that share in the Lords. Individual Lords would not contest elections, but the appropriate number would take their seats based on the election results. This would help create a democratic mandate for a similar profile of peers today, in terms of experience and expertise, but as a potentially ineffective scrutiny chamber if its majority always mirrors the same party’s majority in the Commons.

Alternatively, the Lords should become senators running for election like MPs with their own mandate. The appeal is to have a chamber of similar democratic legitimacy to the other. But, again, the potential cost is significant in terms of constitutional balance. If a senate had its own democratic mandate, this would create an environment for gridlock with neither side having any need to give ground to the other as noted above. This raises the question of constituencies. If elected peers or senators are not MPs, then on what basis might they be selected? The same population electing MPs? Apportioned by regions and, if so, which ones?

One particularly interesting idea is to introduce a model of federalism, as raised during the leadership contest by Keir Starmer. This is a powerful, structural way to bring about a radical devolution of power – and his ideas go far beyond Westminster, to local communities as well. If the Lords is to become a different kind of body, it must have a different kind of mandate. This presents a great opportunity to rethink its size, shape and popular legitimacy that extends far beyond numbers. We must must challenge the system of patronage, as it is often perceived, in the eyes of the public.

With all Labour leadership candidates calling for radical reform of the House of Lords, one point on which they can all agree is the need for a royal commission on its future. This would be an advisory public consultation about a fundamental part of our democracy’s future, such as part of a broader constitutional convention. This is not a new idea. A Labour government held a royal commission, led by Lord Wakeham, about 20 years ago. It recommended cutting the Lords to 550 members, having an independent body make most appointments to tackle peerages as patronage, creating regional membership for a minority through proportional representation, that ministers should become accountable to both Houses and that hereditary peers should be removed.

Two decades later, it is time for Labour to run a new royal commission on similar terms as before, but also reflecting on a new federal structure. Perhaps it will come to similar conclusions as Wakeham. However – the public must be widely consulted and various options explored. It is critically important that we get the size, selection and structure right to improve public confidence. Working these plans into a broader constitutional convention would help join things up well.

Labour has transformed so much for the better, from schools to the NHS and beyond. And we have begun the work on reforming the House of Lords for the better. Much work remains to be done. We must be resolute in our ambition to democratise the second chamber – and address the constitutional issues, as well as the issues of how it is constituted. It is a pledge that any of the Labour leadership candidates can make – to finish what Labour started.

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