It’s time to overhaul the House of Lords

When even Peers are rising up for reform, something’s in the air, writes Nancy Platts. Our movement should get behind it

March 18, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by UK House of Lords (Flickr)

In these weeks of chaos, a very modest has Bill returned to the House of Lords. Labour’s Lord Grocott plans to scrap hereditary peer ‘by-elections’: the bizarre process where the 90-odd hereditary Lords who still sit in our second chamber are replaced each time one leaves. Except there’s a problem: each time he has tried to present it, hereditary peers have attempted – often successfully – to talk it out of time.

It’s a fitting (if depressing) sign that, in the 21st century, unelected aristocratic power still holds sway over our politics. Coincidentally, this week also sees ballot papers sent to a select few able to vote in one of the very ‘by-elections’ Lord Grocott is rightly challenging. But if a Labour government are to truly build a politics for the many, this is a battle we must take on. The figures speak for themselves.

Previously unreleased BMG research polling for the Electoral Reform Society shows what a vote winner overhauling Parliament’s private members’ club could be. Support for replacing the Lords with an elected revising chamber, by party, sits at: 65% for Conservatives, 67% for Labour backers, 63% for Lib Dems, and even higher for UKIP (73%) and the SNP (71%). This is a powerful coalition – and one that could take on unelected power.

Although you’re unlikely to need convincing, the facts surrounding the dire state of the House of Lords are clear. It is grossly oversized – the largest legislative chamber in the world outside of China. It is wasteful: in the 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by peers in years they failed to vote once, while 109 peers failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session. Sixty-three of those claimed expenses – claiming a total of £1,095,701. 33 peers claimed nearly half a million pounds between them while failing to speak, table a written question or serve on a committee in 2016/17.

And it is far from ‘independent’: ERS analysis shows that nearly 80 percent of Conservative peers didn’t once vote against the government in 2016/17. Of the Labour peers who voted, 50 percent voted against the government more than 90 percent of the time. And non-partisan crossbenchers often don’t turn up – over 40 percent voted fewer than 10 times last year: leaving decisions in the hands of the party whips.

Now serious proposals for change have reached the top of the Labour party. Last year Baroness (Pauline) Bryan of Partick was appointed to the House of Lords by Jeremy Corbyn, on condition of campaigning for abolition and replacement of the second chamber. She was designated the lead for updating the party’s policy on federalism and Lords reform.

At Scottish Labour conference over the weekend, she presented her first proposals for a pro-democracy overhaul of Britain’s crumbling constitution.

The ‘Bryan paper’ – a breakthrough in Labour’s constitutional thinking – argues Labour must embrace ‘progressive federalism’ under a clear, codified constitution for the UK. It proposes a ‘partnership model’ between Westminster and Scotland, supported by a ‘most-likely’-elected Senate of the Nations and Regions. That language is crucial: while Labour’s 2017 manifesto supported the ‘principle’ of an elected Lords, it proposed mostly piecemeal reforms. Now the party is moving in the right direction: to a genuine turn against unaccountable power.

Campaigners including the Electoral Reform Society and Scottish Labour figures like Neil Findlay MSP have deemed the proposals a breakthrough, moving Labour closer to backing a fairly-elected second chamber. One thing is clear: it would be unthinkable to support the continuation of an unelected Lords.

And with the UK’s union under strain from the Brexit debacle, we urgently need to examine this in the whole. For the first time, Labour are properly looking at embracing a federal model of national equality.

The ‘Bryan Paper’ is a fundamental step forward in developing Labour’s thinking on constitutional reform. Labour must now adopt these principles as the starting point to ensuring that our politics genuinely will work for the many – not an unelected few.

Nancy Platts is Jeremy Corbyn’s former trade union adviser and co-ordinator of Politics for the Many. Politics for the Many is a coalition of trade unionists campaigning for democratic reform. You can read Baroness Bryan’s paper for the Labour party here.

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