23 November 2022

Starmer’s Lords reforms would be dead on arrival – for one simple reason


Keir Starmer has big constitutional plans if he becomes the next Prime Minister. The Labour leader has said he wants to abolish the Lords as it currently exists, replacing it with an elected upper house.

There’s a simple reason this plan won’t work: Starmer wants his Lords 2.0 to remain an advisory chamber, which means that it won’t be able to veto Commons legislation. Presumably that means the Commons would be able to overturn the Lords’ amendments to legislation, as it can now.

But – and here’s the rub – if the Lords becomes an elected chamber, it will want power. Otherwise, why would anyone stand for election to the powerless Lords when you could stand for the powerful Commons? Perhaps some would do so because it’s an easier route than slogging through the various party machines to become an MP. If that is the case, we might well end up with low-quality, status-seeking candidates.

A bit of history might help elucidate things here. As Starmer may know, the House of Lords has been abolished before, but what it has not done is to gain more power. Parliamentary history is the Commons arrogating, demanding, and acquiring power itself. Fittingly, the first time commoners assembled as part of Parliament, they were called by Simon de Montford, a rebel baron challenging the king. In the next century, the Commons started to evolve as a separate chamber. You can guess what drove the separation: taxes.

From the Wars of the Roses to Charles the First, the monarch reigned supreme. The Civil War and the beheading of Charles I did the Commons quite some good. Cromwell abolished the Lords. After the restoration, the Lords could not alter taxes and the Commons was in charge of supply. Financial privilege – the concept that the Commons was in charge of tax and spend – was born. Skip to 1911 and the Commons removed the Lords’ veto over legislation, diminishing them to a revising chamber.

For hundreds of years Commons supremacy was argued about and then made clear. It was an uncertain path, but since at least the seventeenth century the Commons has been increasingly dominant over the Lords. A consultation will not be enough to prise power away from MPs.

That power is why the Commons is so exciting. What other body is so unchallenged? The most dramatic moments of political history, with a few exceptions, happen on the green benches, not the red. Set-piece legislation comes from the Commons. The Prime Minister is answerable to them directly. Many of the great Prime Ministers who were peers were in the Commons first. The ones who weren’t you either haven’t heard of, or you have but not for good reasons. The Commons is cut-and-thrust; the Lords is codified gentility. If you want to speak in the Commons you must often barrack for attention; in the Lords, when two peers stand up to speak at the same time they often apologise and both sit down. Without power, it simply isn’t a very exciting place.

The Lords does, however, have a sense of glamour. The ancient sense of magic that keeps the British constitution running is nowhere more easily felt. But it is not a vital place, it lacks political energy. When Disraeli was raised to the peerage he wrote in a letter, “I am dead: dead, but in the Elysian fields.” Who would stand to be elected to such a place? 

So we have a question – what powers could the Lords be given? Presumably nothing monetary. As it took them 400 years to establish financial privilege over the Lords, and they have been enjoying that privilege very nicely for another 400, I don’t see the Commons giving it up. The closest model might be the USA, whose constitution was modelled on Britain’s. The House of Representatives is supreme on initiating tax and spending legislation. But the Senate plays a role in passing budgets. It must also approve treaties and presidential appointments. Will Starmer give up his government’s right to appoint heads of government bodies without Lords approval? Is Britain really culturally ready for such a thing? If there are approvals to be had, won’t the Commons want a say?

It probably wouldn’t make sense for Starmer to face Prime Minister’s questions in the Lords. But will we go on mainly appointing the government from the Commons? If not, will the Lords start haranguing the government in the media? There will have to be some mechanism for the Lords to hold the government to account. Whatever that involves, the Commons won’t like it. Imagine if we had mid-terms, as they do in the USA. Would we now be looking at a large Tory majority in the Commons facing down a large Labour one in the Lords? Good luck calming the bond markets down in that situation.

I’m not a naysayer. Lords reform is needed. As Charles Moore once said, the place is an ermine slum. It has nearly 800 members and many members do very little, if anything. But the peers that do their work do it rather well. The system isn’t dysfunctional, so much as misused.

Tony Blair’s Lords reforms left us a mess, but a working mess. That was the unfinished business of 1911. When the Lords lost their veto it was supposed to be the first stage in losing the Lords. Perhaps we will have to wait another century for a solution to come along. In the meantime, Starmer should propose changes to the way appointments are made to stop the ridiculous cronyism – limiting life peers to a term of service, perhaps – and then get on with what we all want to hear: promising to build more houses, improving energy infrastructure, investing in human capital. That is the route to improving trust in politics, not more consultations.

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Henry Oliver is a writer.

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