Labour targets House of Lords in bid to seize the initiative from Tories
If Starmer is as bold as the promise of abolishing the House in the run-up to the next election – a review of Britain’s constitutional arrangements under Gordon Brown is expected to suggest more robust steps – the Conservative party under Sunak is unlikely to recover traction of any consequence before entering a spell in opposition
A slow but steady drumbeat has begun. The next general election in the United Kingdom is due in two years’ time, but given the fractious nature of Westminster politics – this year has already seen three prime ministers in Downing Street – it is anyone’s guess when the country will go to the polls again. It could be held sooner than later, even though a semblance of normal politics has returned after Rishi Sunak took over as prime minister in October.
To say that he has an uphill task keeping the party and government together would be an understatement: besides facing a series of strikes in the winter of workers’ discontent, his critics in the Conservative party are unlikely to smooth his ride, and the party is already haemorrhaging its MPs, many of whom have gone public to say they will not contest the next election. Opinion polls suggest and his MPs admit privately that the party is likely to face a heavy defeat in 2024.
Sitting pretty but cautious not to put a foot wrong, Labour is increasingly seen as the next party in power, which in itself is a remarkable achievement for it leader, Keir Starmer, who has slowly but surely revived its fortunes after an electorally debilitating performance under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s 13 years in power ended in 2010 and since then it has been buffeted by several headwinds. But under Starmer, the party has coalesced internally, and often put the Conservative government on the back-foot, upping the ante on several policy issues facing Britain, offering alternatives and forcing the government to adopt some of them, such as imposing windfall tax on oil and energy companies making massive profits in recent quarters.
Keen to adopt a higher moral ground on the issue of restoring trust in politics, Starmer also made a significant announcement last week: he would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a new elected chamber in his first term in office. The House, its membership and existence itself have long been the subject of parliamentary and academic debates and reports under the rubric of ‘reform’. In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in a parliamentary report: “Reform of the House of Lords is long overdue. For too long, hereditary peers with no democratic legitimacy, whose role is based on birth and not merit, have been able to play a part in passing laws affecting everyone in Britain. For too long, Britain has got by with a second Parliamentary chamber which is less good than it could be. For too long, governments in Britain have shirked the responsibility of reform”.
The last time a serious effort was made to reform the House was in 2012 under the coalition government led by David Cameron, when deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (leader of the Liberal Democrats) sought to pilot a bill to cut the number of lords to 450 (current strength: 784) and have 80 per cent of them elected, but it was dropped in the face of a rebellion by Conservative MPs. Starmer has taken forward the debate by promising to abolish it. He is
expected to make several such radical promises as the next election approaches, but the bid to abolish the House will be welcomed by several quarters, who have long questioned its membership (life peers, bishops) and utility in modern Britain. Giving peerage to some controversial individuals has also contributed to furious calls for reform.
Starmer told a meeting of Labour peers last week that there is now strong support for reform of the House, across party lines and among the public: “I want to be clear that we do need to restore the trust of the public in every part of the United Kingdom in our system of government. House of Lords reform is just one part of that. People have lost faith in the ability of politicians and politics to bring about change – that is why, as well as fixing our economy, we need to fix our politics,” he said, adding that the public’s faith in the political system had been undermined by successive Conservative leaders handing peerages to what he called “lackeys and donors”.
His plan would ensure that the new entity would not replace any of the functions of the House of Commons, and remain a second chamber charged with amending and scrutinising legislation. The House of Commons would continue to retain exclusive powers over the public finances and the formation of governments.
The Electoral Reform Society, a campaign group seeking to champion the rights of voters and build a better democracy in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is among those in favour of an elected House of Lords. For far too many of its members, the House of Lords is a “cosy club for the privileged few”, it says, calling it an affront to voters and an unacceptable burden on the public purse. “Peers are able to claim £323 a day tax-free each day they attend, plus some travel costs. Between April 2019 and March 2020, £17.7 million was spent on Lords allowances and expenses, with the average peer claiming £30,687. A smaller, fairly elected second chamber would be better for tax-payers…Abolishing the outdated and unrepresentative House of Lords offers a chance to rebalance politics away from Westminster – and create a representative Senate of the Nations and Regions”, it says.
Members of the House of Lords include those who bring experience and knowledge from a wide range of occupations. Many members continue to be active in their fields and have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health and public service, bringing their knowledge to their role of examining matters of public interest that affect all UK citizens. The House plays a crucial role in examining bills, questioning government action and investigating public policy, but the issue of its reform has increasingly come to the centrestage, not the least when outgoing prime ministers reward aides with peerages for services rendered.
If Starmer is as bold as the promise of abolishing the House in the run-up to the next election – a review of Britain’s constitutional arrangements under Gordon Brown is expected to suggest more robust steps – the Conservative party under Sunak is unlikely to recover traction of any consequence before entering a spell in opposition.
- The writer is a senior journalist based in London