By Peter Dorey
House of Lords reform remains unfinished business, and looks likely to remain so for a long time yet. The preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act portentously proclaimed that Lords reform was ‘an urgent question which brooks no delay’, yet more than a century later, there have been only sporadic and inchoate reforms. Moreover, these have often been motivated by calculations of partisan advantage, even when depicted as being derived from important political principles. After the 1911 Act, the remainder of the twentieth century witnessed only three further laws pertaining to House of Lords reform: the 1949 Parliament Act, which reduced the Second Chamber’s power of delay (veto) of legislation from two years to one; the 1958 Life Peerages Act, which established a new category of appointed peer to sit alongside the hereditary peers; the 1999 House of Lords Reform Act, which removed most of the hereditary peers, but allowed 92 to remain pending further reform.
Having reduced the veto in 1949, the Labour Party’s main objection to the House of Lords purported to be its composition, most notably the continued existence of the hereditary peers – among whom there was a preponderance of Conservatives. This objection was not assuaged by the post-1958 influx of Life Peers, although Labour’s intra-Party disagreements about how further to reform the House of Lords (or whether to abolish it entirely), resulted in the abandonment of the 1969 Parliament (No. 2) Bill.
Thirty years later, the 1999 legislation was intended to constitute ‘stage one’ of a two-part process of House of Lords reform, Labour’s professed intention being to establish a more democratic and representative Second Chamber. To this purpose, a Royal Commission was also established in 1999, to consider options for changing the composition of the House of Lords, although given that it was chaired by the Conservative Lord Wakeham – widely respected as ‘a safe pair of hands’ – and the narrowness of its remit, it was hardly surprising that its report, a year later, was notable for the modesty of its proposals, most notable of which was that the majority of peers should continue to be appointed rather than elected.
That Labour never completed ‘stage two’ of House of Lords reform during its remaining ten years in government is attributable to four main factors. First, Blair himself, along with many of his senior colleagues, was never committed to a democratic House of Lords, in terms of an elected Second Chamber. Their prime objective was to remove most of the (Conservative) hereditary peers, whereupon no party would enjoy an overall majority in the Second Chamber. This would somehow render the House of Lords politically ‘representative’, albeit unelected. Having removed most of the hereditary peers, there was (just as Tony Benn had gloomily predicted) little ministerial interest in pursuing ‘stage two’ – the apparent half-way House would become a permanent dwelling. Second, the Labour Party was divided over the options for reforming the membership of the House of Lords; fully-appointed; fully-elected; 80% elected and 20% appointed; 50% elected and 50% appointed; any other combination? The scale of Labour’s intra-Party divisions was revealed when the House of Commons voted on various options and permutations in 2003 and 2007, whereupon none of them enjoyed a majority in the House overall. Besides, Labour opponents of an elected Second Chamber doubtless feared that such an institution would claim a democratic mandate and enhanced legitimacy of its own, and thus become a serious rival to the House of Commons.
Third, the Labour Party has a long history of constitutional conservatism, which itself reflects Labour’s atheoretical anti-intellectualism and, instead, a pride in pragmatic empiricism. As a consequence, Labour leaders have readily subscribed to the Westminster Model of British government, and seen little need for critical reflection over the operation of, and relationship between, Britain’s political institutions and constitutional arrangements. As already noted, when Labour governments have enacted constitutional reforms, the main motive has been calculations of partisan advantage, rather than genuine democratisation of the British state (even the establishment of the Scottish Parliament seemed to be motivated less by a genuine commitment to devolution and democratisation than the objective of scuppering support for the SNP in order to restore Labour’s hitherto hegemony in Scotland – a fatal miscalculation!).
The fourth reason for Labour’s failure to pursue House of Lords reform in a coherent and consistent manner is that most of the Party’s MPs deem it an issue of low salience, both to themselves and the electorate. So called bread-and-butter issues like the economy, education, the NHS, pensions, etc., are what most Labour MPs and voters are interested in. Indeed, many Labour MPs seem to assume that interest in constitutional reform is mainly confined to Islington dinner parties where the guests eat organic nut-roast and quaff Fair Trade Merlot.
One might have expected Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election to have removed these obstacles to completing ‘stage two’ of House of Lords reform, but there has subsequently been little substantive progress under either the 2010-15 Coalition or post-2015 Conservative Governments. The 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill aimed to establish a Second Chamber in which 80% of members would eventually be elected, and although it was given its Second Reading (by 462 votes to 124), the Bill was immediately withdrawn when the Government decided not to invoke the programme motion (which would have stipulated how much parliamentary time would be allocated to subsequent stages of the Bill). The Labour Opposition contrived to object to the Bill on the grounds that it ought to provide for a fully-elected Second Chamber (having spectacularly failed to support such a reform during its 13 years in Office) and so did not go far enough, while many Conservative MPs were strongly opposed to a predominantly-elected Second Chamber, thus deeming the Bill to go too far.
More successful was the 2014 House of Lords Reform Act, which allowed for the retirement or resignation of peers, and also the expulsion of peers in specified circumstances. This was buttressed by the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. The then Conservative leader, David Cameron, petulantly threatened to curb the power of the House of Lords after peers had evinced the temerity to oppose planned cuts to tax credits (part of the Conservatives’ war against the poor masquerading as welfare reform), but he resigned as Prime Minister following the Brexit result in the June referendum. His successor, Theresa May, having never displayed any notable interest in this issue, and widely viewed as a cautious leader, soon made it clear that she had no interest in carrying out Cameron’s threat. Besides, she and her Cabinet colleagues will be pre-occupied with pursuing Brexit for at least the next two years, and so will hardly want to mire themselves in yet another attempt at reforming the House of Lords. Indeed, they will need the full co-operation of the House of Lords in dealing with the myriad constitutional and detailed administrative issues or technicalities which Brexit will entail. However, if the House of Lords proves to be (too) obstructive over Brexit, then Conservative threats or demands to curb its power are likely to re-emerge.
Peter Dorey is Professor of British Politics in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University, and author (with Alexandra Kelso) of House of Lords Reform since 1911: Must the Lords Go?