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The Lords Needs Reform, Not Revolution

Staff writer Fred Taylor address Labour’s new proposal for reform of the House of Lords. Would an ‘Assembly of Nations and Regions’ aid or detract from our democracy?

On Monday 5 December, Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown declared their intent to fix what they dubbed “our broken political system”. They proposed a set of constitutional reforms which would radically change the way in which decisions are made in this country. Their flagship policy was a renewed promise to abolish the House of Lords. The reaction to this was mixed. Supporters see this as a way to strengthen democracy and increase trust in politics. Detractors believe this ‘big bang’ reform is not well thought-out.

However, Starmer first received criticism for his timing. Nadhim Zahawi tweeted almost immediately: 

He has a point. Amongst the wider population, constitutional reform is really not a priority right now; YouGov does not even record it as salient issue for the public. Long NHS waiting lists, a cost of living crisis, and wage stagnation are what people want the government to deal with. 

But Starmer knows this. He has always been a calculating politician and is aware of the exact kind of attacks he is opening himself up for when he announces constitutional reform during a cost-of-living crisis. What he is doing is tackling one of the Labour Party’s greatest criticisms: that it is a ‘Tory-lite’ party with no vision. In the lead-up to the next election, he will be questioned on what sets his party apart from the Conservatives – now, he will have a definitive answer.

Furthermore, it will help appease the left of the party, who are increasingly questioning whether the Labour Party is the party for them. On November 22, Roar published an opinion piece by Sahar Rabbani about this precise issue.

The proposed reforms respond to certain perceived problems with the House of Lords. It is seen as a place for party donors or loyal backbenchers to spend the last days of their careers. In Tony Benn’s words, it is “the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians”. Compounding the elitism issue, many of the members are appointed either by right of birth or by the Church of England, making the UK and Iran the only countries with reserved seats in Parliament for clerics. 

A second problem is that the House of Lords is seen as a pointless chamber. It is almost entirely advisory, with not much legislative power. Starmer believes that a second house could be better utilised by ensuring that those who do not feel that their voice is heard in the Commons, can still see that their voice is heard in Parliament. It is often argued that areas such as the North of England, physically distant from Westminster, and with no devolved chamber, are not really considered when Parliament makes decisions. Perhaps a second chamber should provide a regionalist element, like the US Senate. Ensuring this representation could be a better use of a second chamber, and could restore trust in politics.

Only 19% of Brits have confidence in the House of Lords; Starmer knows that he can make electoral gains by overhauling this unelected institution. Furthermore, other areas of change cost money, something that the treasury lacks at the minute. Starmer has found a popular policy that is more-or-less free: a politician’s dream. 

However, his solution to the defects of the House of Lords prioritises what is popular over what will work. Essentially, his plan is to replace the upper house with a 200-member elected chamber: ‘The Assembly of Nations and Regions’. There are several problems with this.

Firstly, giving powers to this upper chamber would ‘Americanise’ our political system. Instead of the ‘ping-pong’ that happens in the Lords, where legislation is sent back to the Commons a maximum of 3 times, we would see gridlock. The 1949 Parliament Act limited the Lords’ power of suspension to one year – this would be called into question if the second chamber was democratic. If the upper chamber had legitimacy in the same way the House of Commons did, then there would be no reason why it could not outright reject Commons legislation. The two chambers would be vying for the same spot.

On the other hand, if it were not given any powers, or given limited powers, the chamber would descend into irrelevancy. The Spanish upper chamber, ‘el Senado’, is designed to give a larger voice to underrepresented areas. Four senators are elected per province, leaving Barcelona, with five and a half million people, with the same representation as Soria, with eighty-eight thousand. The chamber’s role is mainly advisory, with the power to propose amendments to the main chamber. However, these can be rejected by the lower house who do not need the Senado’s consent to pass legislation.

The result of this system is an upper chamber that is mostly irrelevant. It is almost always controlled by the same party as the lower chamber, meaning that it is reluctant to criticise its policies. It is made up of elected politicians who have no different perspective than the elected politicians in the lower house, making them unable to give effective advice on legislation. It is the tick-box chamber.

The truth is, a second elected chamber is pointless because there is already an elected chamber sitting. A better solution is to reform the House of Lords and ensure it serves a proper function within our democratic system.

Advocates of the House of Lords describe it as a chamber that can provide an in-depth consideration of policies. This consideration is conducted by experts concerned with the long-term good of all the people, instead of politicians who need to constantly keep constituents happy. They have no need to respond to populist rhetoric or to engage in short-termism, and instead can focus on providing reliable non-partisan scrutiny of bills and of Government action. At the very least, they can hold up government legislation and increase media scrutiny and public pressure.

As Lord Dobbs puts it: “We’re a bit like a composting machine, whatever comes out the other end is always more fragrant and more fertile than what went in”.

There are many examples of the Lords performing this role. For instance, they were successful in removing some provisions of the Internal Markets Act which contravened international law. In 2016, it ensured that immigrants would not be detained for more than 28 days before seeing a judge. In 2020, it proposed that asylum seekers waiting for 6 months have the right to employment. Lords can preoccupy themselves with the rights of the voteless asylum seeker, ensure that individual rights are put above ‘the greater good’, check that bills have positive consequences that last more than 5 years, and stop proposals which would damage the reputation of the UK. 

The problem with the House of Lords is that many, or even most, of its members aren’t experts, and are party donors, or retired politicians. These politicians have often had to leave the House of Commons because voters rejected them in an election, and are then awarded a life-long place in the Lords. 

For it to become an authority-led, fact-driven institution, the appointment system should be changed. We cannot construct an apolitical, expert-based chamber if the appointments are based on political whims.

The Prime Minister should not be in charge of life appointments. Hereditary peers should be removed. The archaic 25 peerages apportioned to the Church of England should be scrapped. An independent appointments system should instead seek to find legal, scientific and educational specialists to populate the chamber.

There is a real space in our politics for increased expert scrutiny. It enables better legislation, takes care of the traditionally unrepresented, makes sure that too many statutory powers are not transferred to the executive, and ensures that often unpopular, but important norms, such as human rights, are always present and discussed in Parliament. Expert scrutiny on legislation will help journalists communicate to the public about the real impact of public policy.

Reform of the House of Lords is a brilliant opportunity for Keir Starmer to present a fact-driven future for British politics. Instead, he has allowed populist rhetoric to seep into policy. He always criticised Boris Johnson for damaging our institutions to achieve electoral gains, but now, he is doing just that.

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