14 June 2024

Labour’s constitutional reforms are misconceived and pointless


Constitutional reform is a difficult issue in politics, because it is complicated, important and, to most people, quite boring. Those who do take an interest, conversely, often inflate its significance.

The Labour Party’s manifesto restricts constitutional change to a modest few pages, which may seem appropriate given the other challenges facing the country. Yet Keir Starmer and his advisers have managed to cram into those few pages a dizzying combination of proposals which are variously pointless, misconceived and potentially damaging.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, after all, the Labour leader has a history with such issues. In 2020, Starmer asked former prime minister Gordon Brown to convene a commission of experts and interested parties and produce plans to ‘settle the future of the union’ and devolve ‘power, wealth and opportunity’. No-one has ever accused Brown of levity or an insufficient sense of purpose, and his 16-strong Commission on the UK’s Future produced a dense, heavily footnoted 155-page report bursting with recommendations. A great deal of this has now been parked with an eye to either the future or the never-never.

The headlines of Labour’s plans are as follows: an independent Ethics and Integrity Commission to supervise ministers, banning MPs’ outside interests, removing peers from the House of Lords when they reach 80 and lowering the voting age to 16.

I spent more than 10 years working in Parliament, so the plans for the House of Lords particularly interest me. The Brown Commission proposed a radical notion: the current chamber would be abolished and replaced with an elected ‘Assembly of the Nations and Regions’ which would scrutinise legislation but also act as a constitutional watchdog.

Implementing this was originally a pledge for the first term of a Labour government, but Starmer has dialled it back to a ‘commitment’ without a deadline. Instead he will ‘consult on proposals, seeking the input of the British public on how politics can best serve them’.

The only definite measures now are the removal of the remaining 92 hereditary peers and the imposition of retirement at the end of a parliament in which a peer reaches the age of 80. There will also be a ‘new participation requirement’, though its details are unknown. This reflects Labour’s analysis of the problems of the second chamber:

Too many peers do not play a proper role in our democracy. Hereditary peers remain indefensible. And because appointments are for life, the second chamber of Parliament has become too big.

That is a curious diagnosis. The issue of size is, and always has been, a red herring: while the overall number of peers is 785, this figure is important only in presentational terms. It does not impede the functioning of the House as a legislative chamber, and the average attendance is rather smaller than that of the House of Commons. Indeed, it has never risen above 500.

Introducing a retirement age of 80 is a significant step in a chamber where the average age is 71, and would disqualify around 150 current peers, which in a year’s time would include the Lord Speaker Baron McFall. It is the most arbitrary way to reduce numbers one could devise.

The removal of the remaining hereditary peers is a matter either of intense high principle or political gesture. It is perfectly possible to believe there should be no hereditary component in the House of Lords, but no-one can argue that it seriously undermines or inhibits the work of the chamber in practical terms.

The vague ‘participation requirement’ is more important and more foolish. It is part of the fundamental conception of the House of Lords that it is not a phalanx of full-time, dedicated legislators. The reason it is able to include former civil servants and soldiers, successful businessmen and entrepreneurs, academics and scientists and figures drawn from different parts of civil society is its ‘opt-in’ nature.

This is a good thing: peers are not paid a salary nor placed under an obligation to attend, so may speak and vote when they feel they have something to contribute. Labour’s new measure directly contradicts that notion and will only encourage those who are keenest to remain to participate as much as possible, irrespective of value.

Lowering the voting age is equally pseudo-sensible. Starmer’s justification seems logical: ‘If you can work, if you can pay tax, if you can serve in your Armed Forces, then you ought to be able to vote’. But that is mendacious. He is apparently content that these potential working taxpayers should be required by law to stay in education (in England) unless they have an apprenticeship; cannot drive until they are 17; cannot buy or consume alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18; and cannot be married. How do we withhold these rights from people with a vote? All of this is of course ignoring any suggestion that 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to vote Labour than Conservative.

With all of this being said, there are ways in which the House of Lords could be made more effective. However, none of these measures likely to achieve that and may make things worse. But as far as Starmer is concerned, it shows the electorate that at least his party is offering something. That, for the moment, is Labour’s constitutional approach.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.