Last week, Keir Starmer promised to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a fully-elected second chamber if he enters office. He argues that to restore trust in politics we must remove the ability of politicians to appoint peers. Boris Johnson came under fire during his time as PM after he seemingly appointed his friends and individuals many believe not to be deserving of a seat in the Lords.
However, Starmer’s plans for reform are reminiscent of previous attempts to change the composition of the Lords and ultimately miss the point of what our second chamber is for: to act as an independent scrutinising machine for government legislation. Electing peers would make this purpose politically unworkable.
To have a second elected chamber would essentially mean Parliament would become a unicameral system rather than a bicameral system, completely negating the point of our democratic institutions.
If we were to implement Starmer’s proposal, an elected second chamber would no doubt come into direct conflict with the House of Commons, as they would wrestle to represent the people who elected them. The Lords at present give us an independent body of scrutiny for government legislation, without the problems of having to represent the electorate.
Through being elected, the second chamber would require greater powers and therefore cause political gridlock when it comes to legislating. While some gridlock is healthy, too much makes Parliament unworkable. See the US for example, where gridlock between the executive and legislature causes significant problems.
Also, why would the public back another set of elected officials, when trust in our MPs is forever falling? This would only add to our problem of trust in politics, not remedy it.
The most valuable element of the House of Lords is without question the level of expertise which exists in a variation of areas. Particularly for cross-bench peers (non-party affiliated), their diverse backgrounds and experience in their respective roles allows for a greater quality of scrutiny in select committees and in the chamber itself.
Leaving the things Starmer is missing about the House of Lords to one side, the very fact that reform has failed to materialise countless times over the decades makes abolishing it completely a huge mountain to climb.
New Labour’s achievement of removing all but 92 Hereditary Peers in their first-term was a welcome reform, as it removed an overall majority of one party and improved representation.
However, efforts to expand this reform have since failed. After a cross-party consensus was established to have a good proportion of peers elected come the 2010 General Election, David Cameron never followed through with his manifesto pledge. Peter Riddell once said that Lords reform is always an ‘after election’ issue and therefore never comes to be.
The solution to the long-term future of the House of Lords is always after the next election, and has been for a century.Peter Riddell, The Times
One reason for these failures may be due to the government not wanting to give powers over to a second chamber, ultimately limiting their ability to govern effectively. There is not much support for an elected second chamber within the Lords itself either.
This is not to say that the House of Lords does not need to be reformed. It most definitely does. The removal of the remaining Hereditary Peers would be a good start, and the increase of cross-bench peers would increase the representation of different parts of society – so long as the appointing body is independent and recommends individuals to reflect the diversity of the UK.
It may also be an option to move towards a jury service style appointment system. In this case, every 1-2 years an independent body could appoint peers based on a range of criteria, aiming to reflect the wider population while bringing into Parliament the expertise required for law-making.
Whatever future House of Lords reform may look like, if it happens at all, it should not be in the form of Starmer’s plans to abolish it. I fear his reasons for doing so are too responsive in nature, simply looking to attack Boris Johnson (however correct the attacks may be). Removing the right of PMs to appoint peers would be welcome, but abolishing it may be going one step too far.
The House of Lords is and remains a beacon of expertise and independence in our political system and acts as an effective scrutinising machine to the government. Reform should keep this in mind and opt for retaining an unelected second chamber, but focus on improving the cross-bench, diverse background and experience qualities which make the Lords such a valuable asset of Parliament.
Image: Rwendland via Wikimedia commons