Eliot Wilson

Why can’t Starmer be honest about reforming the Lords?

Labour leader Keir Starmer previously vowed to abolish the Lords (Getty Images)

Sometimes life comes at you fast. Barely 18 months ago, Sir Keir Starmer, beginning to scent general election victory in his future, pledged to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber as part of a project to ‘restore trust in politics’. By Tuesday this week, the Labour leader in the upper house, Baroness Smith of Basildon, could make no firmer a commitment than keeping an ‘open mind’ to the possibility of phasing out the remaining 92 hereditary peers. That seems like quite a journey.

Labour’s plans have gradually diminished since 2022

House of Lords reform is in some ways the ultimate parlour game for constitutional obsessives. It has a familiar and well-worn charm: it is, after all, more than 100 years since H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government introduced the Parliament Act 1911, the first serious measure to curb the power of the unelected chamber. Since then, however, there have been as many false dawns as major achievements.

Apart from the Parliament Act, the major changes to the House of Lords over the past century have been the introduction of life peerages in 1958 – which brought radical change to the composition of the house – and the House of Lords Act 1999, by which most hereditary peers lost their right to sit and vote in Parliament. The act was ‘phase one’ of Tony Blair’s programme of Lords reform; 25 years later, we are still waiting for a phase two.

Labour’s plans have gradually diminished since 2022. The report of Starmer’s Commission on the UK’s Future, an impeccably respectable collection of bigwigs chaired by Gordon Brown, proposed not just radical change but wholesale abolition and replacement. The current, largely appointed house would be swept away; in its place, Labour would build an Assembly of the Nations and Regions. This smaller, elected body would complement the House of Commons without challenging its primacy, would represent the whole of the United Kingdom in some different way from the Commons, and would have a special role in safeguarding ‘the constitution of the United Kingdom and the distribution of power within it’.

Initially there was real urgency to this. Starmer talked of the work beginning in the first term of a Labour government, underlining its importance in restoring public trust in politics. Last summer, party figures reiterated the priority. By October, however, the commitment was being walked back: newspapers were briefed that a new government would have other legislative priorities, and that changes would be more limited. The possibilities of capping the size of the house, strengthening the House of Lords Appointments Commission and removing the remaining hereditary peers were floated.

This week, giving evidence to the House of Lords Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Baroness Smith could not even go that far with certainty. The presence of the hereditary peers was ‘hard to justify’ but she had an ‘open mind’ on the question of removing them. The one promise she did make was that her party would not ‘appoint hundreds of new peers’.

It is easy to mock Labour for its increasing faint-heartedness. They deserve it. What Starmer and Smith are coming to realise, however, is the set of basic truths which underlie House of Lords reform. These are: the public is largely indifferent to constitutional change; finding consensus on the need for change is much easier than achieving agreement on what should replace the current house; attempts at reform can absorb enormous amounts of energy and legislative time; and the system as it stands is a useful source of government patronage.

All of this is doubly true because, in practice rather than in theory, the House of Lords works passably well. No party has a majority, and there is a substantial group of 180 crossbenchers, peers who do not align with any political party and take individual views on issues. The house knows its place, conscious of its lack of democratic mandate but increasingly skilled in judging how far it can exert its mixed composition and independent expertise to revise and improve legislation. And it unobtrusively carries out a lot of tidying-up of bills for which both government and opposition have cause to be thankful.

None of this constitutes a radical rallying cry for an election campaign. ‘The status quo is broadly positive and workable, given the absence of consensus on a replacement!’ is not a slogan ever heard on any barricade. In a different universe, in which politicians were not forced to speak performative formulae which they and we know to be untrue or at least misleading, Sir Keir Starmer would articulate this: Labour has a lot to do, governments must prioritise, the House of Lords is currently one of the less dysfunctional parts of our constitutional arrangements and changes to satisfy theoretical tenets are nowhere near the top of the agenda.

We are not in that universe. The House of Lords first sat as a separate body from the Commons in 1341, and in the intervening 700 years it has, like most of our institutions of government, lurched, wriggled and evolved into what we have today. No-one would create it in its current form de novo, but that is not how the constitution works. Radical reform would be a contentious self-indulgence when there are other challenges to tackle. It’s just a shame Starmer can’t be honest about that.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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