The Labour Party’s long-standing lethargy over House of Lords reform

Labour recently announced that any new peers it nominates must commit to abolishing the House of Lords. In this post, Pete Dorey discusses Labour’s track record on Lords reform and why the party has failed to enact serious reforms when in government, arguing that the subject has suffered from a lack of intra-party consensus and a lack of serious interest in reform at ministerial level.

It is a clear reflection of the political turbulence and febrile atmosphere wrought by Brexit that some prominent Conservatives, and pro-Conservative newspapers, have attacked the House of Lords for daring to obstruct ‘the people’s will’, with regard to tabling significant amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Of course, there is delicious irony in such condemnation, given that support for Brexit has long been couched in a discourse about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, whereby Westminster, not Brussels, should be the locus of all political decisions affecting the British people.

That it is also Conservatives who have recently denounced the unrepresentative and undemocratic character of the House of Lords is even more ironic, not to say hypocritical, given that the Conservative Party has hitherto been a staunch defender of the unelected second chamber – bitterly opposing the 1999 removal of most hereditary peers – particularly when Labour has mooted reforms to render it more politically representative, and/or curb its (limited) power.

That such reforms have only occasionally and sporadically been enacted by Labour governments has not been due to Conservative opposition, however, but to disagreements within the Labour Party itself over the desirability and details of Lords’ reform. Condemning the socially and politically unrepresentative character of the House of Lords, and its veto power, has been easy for Labour MPs and ministers, but intra-party agreement on what exactly should be done to remedy these apparent defects has proved rather more elusive. There are four main reasons why Labour governments have only pursued House of Lords reform sporadically, rather than systematically.

First, there have been different perspectives about which particular aspects of the House of Lords – more particularly prior to the eradication of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999 – are, or were, most objectionable. For some Labour MPs, it was the existence of hereditary peers per se that was the main indictment of the second chamber, while for others, the key objection was that absolutely none of the peers were elected, thus rendering the second chamber totally undemocratic. Some Labour MPs were more concerned about the House of Lords’ power of veto (for two years prior to 1949, and one year thereafter), deeming it wrong that it should be able to delay legislation approved by the democratically elected House of Commons. Of course, this last objection was often compounded by the composition of the second chamber, particularly when the veto might be invoked by hereditary peers (who were overwhelmingly Conservative) prior to 1999.

Second, the Labour Party’s critics of the House of Lords have struggled to agree on how it should be reformed, or even on whether it should exist in the first place. While all Labour MPs were able to denounce the hereditary peers and thus demand their removal, there has been little real intra-party agreement on the composition of the second chamber; who should be entitled to sit in the House of Lords (assuming that it retained this appellation), and how they should be appointed, or by who? Clearly, once membership of the House of Lords is no longer based on inheriting a peerage, the key question is whether peers should be appointed or elected? Yet the Labour Party has variously discovered that this is actually a more complex issue than the two ostensible choices would suggest, because rather than being an either/or choice (which would in itself yield different preferences) many Labour MPs have supported a combination of elected and appointed peers. Consequently, the preferences of Labour MPs have spanned a continuum ranging from a fully-appointed second chamber to a wholly-elected Upper House, with various permutations in between. A major consequence of this is that no single option has secured majority support, as was evident in the 2003 House of Commons (unwhipped) votes on options for compositional reform.

Table 1: How (Labour) MPs votes in the 2003 parliamentary debate on House of Lords reform

Options Labour MPs voting for Labour MPs voting against All MPs voting for All MPs voting against Majority (of all MPs)
100% appointed 175 181 245 323 −78
60% elected 153 201 253 316 −63
80% elected 153 197 281 284 −3
100% elected 155 197 272 289 −17

The options for 20, 40 and 50% of peers to be elected were defeated without a vote.

Extrapolated from House of Commons Debates (Hansard), 6th series Vol. 399, cols. 225–43, 4 February 2003.

What is notable is that the most popular option among Labour MPs was that of a fully appointed second chamber, which strongly suggests that once the vast majority of hereditary peers had been removed from the Lords in 1999, many Labour MPs were broadly content with its composition. Yet the second most popular option among Labour MPs was for a wholly-elected Upper House, thus illustrating the diverse perspectives and preferences among Labour MPs, and therefore the lack of consensus.

What the data does not explain are the motivations and rationales of Labour MPs with regard to their preferences. Some Labour MPs who supported a fully-elected second chamber genuinely favoured democratisation, particularly as the option of a fully-appointed Upper House risked increasing Prime Ministerial patronage – hence the jibe at the time about ‘Tony’s cronies’ (Tony Blair being PM), but a few Labour MPs apparently voted for the fully-elected option (as did some Conservatives) to embarrass Blair, who favoured an appointed House of Lords. Conversely, many Labour supporters of an appointed, or mostly-appointed, second chamber were deeply concerned that an elected second chamber would acquire greatly enhanced legitimacy, and thereupon prove a rival to the House of Commons, and the Labour government within it. Indeed, some Labour MPs who favoured abolition of the House of Lords voted in favour of a fully-appointed second chamber precisely because the ‘legitimacy’ of an elected Upper House would weaken the case for abolition.

Although this lack of agreement is clearly a major reason why the Labour Party has only sporadically enacted reforms of the House of Lords, in 1949 and 1999 – the 1969 Parliament (No. 2) Bill itself having been withdrawn due to lack agreement in the party – other factors have also contributed to this ‘constitutional conservatism’. One of these factors is that very few senior Labour parliamentarians have deemed House of Lords reform to be an important issue, certainly when compared to more obvious issues such as the economy, foreign affairs, education, the NHS, pensions, etc. True, Tony Blair was keen to eliminate most of the hereditary peers, via the 1999 Act, but while this was portrayed as ‘stage one’ of a two-stage process of reform, the second stage never materialised. Indeed, as some Labour politicians – like Tony Benn – predicted at the time, Blair lost interest in House of Lords reform once most of the hereditary peers had been removed, and the Conservatives no longer enjoyed a preponderance in the second chamber.

As Philip Norton has noted, parliamentary reform tends to need a ‘champion’ in a government, a senior figure who is fully and actively committed to such reform, as personified by Richard Crossman in the late 1960s, and Robin Cook in the early 2000s. Such ‘change champions’ are rare, reflecting the tendency for House of Lords reform to be of less interest to senior ministers in Labour governments, most of whom are understandably pre-occupied with other, more pressing, policy issues.

The third reason why the Labour Party has only sporadically pursued Lords reform is its general acceptance of the Westminster Model of British government, which prioritises a strong central executive over parliament, and which privileges the House of Commons over the House of Lords. Clearly, any reform which strengthened the House of Lords, either through increased powers or enhanced legitimacy, would – if one accepts a zero-sum conception of power – curtail the de facto power both of a Labour government, and the House of Commons. Given the myriad domestic and global constraints and problems with which any modern government has to contend, it is hardly surprising that few senior Labour politicians have wanted to reform the House of Lords in a manner which would increase the second chamber’s authority or legitimacy. This was evident in the 2001 White Paper The House of Lords: Completing the Reform– although ‘the Reform’ was not completed – which reiterated that:

The House of Commons has long since been established as the pre-eminent constitutional authority within the UK … This constitutional framework, founded on the pre-eminence of the House of Commons, has provided Britain with effective democratic Government and accountability for more than a century, and few would wish to change it. It is vital that reform of the Lords does not upset this balance … Reform of the House of Lords must therefore satisfy one key condition: it must not alter the respective roles and authority of the two chambers (pp. 9–10, paragraphs 13–18).

Labour’s acceptance of the Westminster Model is part of the party’s more general ‘constitutional conservatism’, and its overall lack of critical reflection about the operation of Britain’s political institutions, and, indeed, the machinery of government. In this respect, many senior Labour parliamentarians have been as scornful as their Conservative counterparts of ‘ivory tower’ academics theorising about political power, or the so-called bien pensant ‘chattering classes’. Labour leaders have generally shared Harold Wilson’s view that the British state is rather like a car – it can be driven in whichever direction the driver wishes it to. What is important is who the driver is, rather than the car itself.

To the extent that Labour governments and prime ministers have occasionally pursued constitutional reform, it has invariably been either to strengthen or modernise the extant machinery of government, as was the case when Wilson instigated the Fulton inquiry into the civil service in the 1960s, or to render parliament more ‘efficient’, rather than ‘effective’. This last point is particularly pertinent, because of the important distinction between parliamentary reform intended to ensure that parliament expedites governmental legislation more swiftly, and parliamentary reform which aims to ensure that parliament can subject governmental legislation and other policies, to more thorough scrutiny, and play a more active role in shaping policies. Needless to say, ministers tend to favour ‘efficiency’ reforms (reducing the House of Lords veto, removing most of the hereditary peers), while backbenchers and ‘change champions’ have pursued reforms to improve Parliament’s ‘effectiveness (departmental select committees, and Tony Wright’s 2010 reforms of the Commons’ committees and procedures).

The fourth and final reason for the overall lack of consistent or enthusiastic pursuit of House of Lords reform (or other modes of constitutional reform) by the Labour Party is electoral; it is, and always has been, an issue of low saliency to the vast majority of voters, and certainly not a valence issue. As such, Labour Party leaders have understandably reasoned that there is little or no electoral mileage in pledging House of Lords reform, and so they have focused on bread-and-butter issues such as economic affairs, education, the NHS, and pensions.

The Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto asserted that ‘the Second Chamber should be democratically elected’, in lieu of which the remaining hereditary peers would be removed, and the total number of peers reduced. Yet even if a Labour government is elected which is committed to an elected House of Lords, it will face numerous problems in putting principle into practice. Quite apart from the enhanced legitimacy which an elected second chamber would enjoy – thus making it much more likely to challenge governments and the House of Commons – there would be arguments about the method of election, and the timing of elections.

The 2017 manifesto was curious in its tautological terminology of ‘democratically elected’, but this inevitably prompted intra-party debates over which method of election would be most ‘democratic’. Presuming (a big assumption, admittedly) that proportional representation was acknowledged to be the most democratic, this would still necessitate reaching agreement over which form of PR to adopt. Yet if and when such agreement was reached, there would then almost certainly be demands for PR finally to be adopted for general (House of Commons) elections too – a point recently acknowledged by Labour’s Lord Lipsey in a letter in The Guardian. There would also be the small matter of when elections to the House of Lords should take place. Hold them simultaneously with elections to the House of Commons, and the result might be a duplication of party representation in both Houses, and thus fewer or less effective checks and balances. On the other hand, if Lords’ elections were held mid-term between general elections, this would increase the likelihood of a government suffering the customary mid-term blues, and thus of opposition parties winning more seats in the second chamber. They would then claim to constitute a more accurate and up-to-date reflection of public opinion, leading to repeated clashes between the two elected Houses – far more so that under the current system.

Notes

This post originally appeared on the Constitution Unit blog and is cross-posted with permission.

Pete Dorey is Professor of British Politics in the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. His 15 books include House of Lords Reform Since 1911: Must the Lords Go? (with Alexandra Kelso, 2011) and The Labour Party and Constitutional Reform: A History of Constitutional Conservatism (2008). He has also published articles on House of Lords reform in the journals Parliamentary Affairs, British Politics, Parliamentary History, and Representation.

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