Keir Starmer has given the strongest indicator yet that he would support the abolition of the House of Lords, or certainly substantial reform of the chamber. As part of a wide-ranging report commissioned by the Labour Party into how to redress economic and social in-balance between London and the South-East and the rest of the country, it was recommended to replace the current House of Lords with an at least partially elected second chamber. It should be pointed out that this is not official Labour policy yet. The recommendations of the report are being considered by the Labour Party. This is something that Labour even have history with. It was Tony Blair’s government that reformed the House of Lords in the late 90s to remove the majority of hereditary peers. That was only supposed to be the first stage of a much wider reform of the chamber. Instead, Labour hedged their bets and stayed with the system that is still in place today. But my question is, does the House of Lords need reforming?
First of all, it is important to say that it is rather ridiculous to have as one of the main cornerstones of British democracy an entirely undemocratic, unelected chamber. That is patently ridiculous and completely counter-intuitive. So, in that sense, it is almost essential to reform the second chamber of Parliament. Reforming the House of Lords will also allow the country to move away from patronage once and for all. Before the New Labour reforms in the 90s, people were able to take a seat in the House based entirely on their family name, and the patronage of a long-dead monarch hundreds of years before. While that system of royal patronage is long gone, Political patronage is the replacement for it. After the number of hereditary peers was limited to 92, new members were appointed by the Prime Minister and the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Commission is independent of the actual chamber itself and vets all nominations, as well as nominating non-party Life Peers. But, as Boris Johnson showed, it is entirely possible to simply ignore their recommendations and ennoble anyone you want, particularly if they have been an editor or owner of a newspaper writing extremely friendly and complementary things about you. Reforming the chamber to be a truly democratic body would remove that possibility. It would also remove the possibility of a return to something like the cash for honours scandal that blighted the final stage of Tony Blair’s premiership.
On the other hand, the function that the House of Lords now serves is to act as a revising house for legislation from the Commons. The vast majority of constitutional political power at Westminster lies with the House of Commons. That dates all the way back to the Act of Parliament of 1911. It was then that the primacy of the elected house was established. So, for instance, the Lords can send legislation back to the Commons a total of three times before the Lords can be bypassed and the bill can be sent for Royal Assent. Given the process of passing legislation into law, it doesn’t get to that stage too often. But the agenda of the day is clearly set by the Commons. Also, the parties are less structured in the Lords than they are in the Commons which allows the members to properly scrutinise the bills that come before them. There is also the group of cross-bench members who are not beholden to any political agenda. They are truly free to look at the bills from all angles and cast a vote on whether they think the legislation is actually in the national interest. Members of the Lords can also take a longer-term view of whether bills will actually do what they are intended to do without having to worry about winning their seat at the next election. I would also pose the question of whether the British public would actually take well to having another chamber to vote for. The cycle of British politics is very much built around general elections. The House of Commons is the one major thing that the British electorate votes on. We don’t have mid-term elections like in America. And on the whole, people seem perfectly happy for things to stay that way.
It’s a difficult question to answer. And we are still two years away from the next general election. It is going to be a long time before we get any answers even from Labour, but I think it is going to be something to keep an eye on. It will be the biggest constitutional shift in this country since the Act of Parliament in 1911.