Labour’s same old waffle on Lords reform

Keir Starmer has promised that if Labour wins the next UK General Election, the Labour government will abolish the House of Lords. More accurately, that should read, the Labour party has promised yet again to abolish the House of Lords. The abolition of the unelected upper chamber has been Labour policy since the party was first founded. The first attempt to make the upper chamber democratic was in 1911 when the Liberal Government of the day introduced the Parliament Act which promised, amongst other things : “whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.”

This Act did curtail the powers of the Lords, which at the time was entirely hereditary in its composition and deeply reactionary in its views. The Act removed the ability of the Lords to veto the budget, the House of Commons was also given the power to overrule the Lords’ veto of other bills after three parliamentary sessions. In 1917 the Bryce Commission was set up to consider further proposals to reform the Lords. However the commission’s recommendations were rejected by a vote in the House of Lords and the matter was dropped until after WW2. Labour’s Parliament Act of 1949, amended the 1911 act and reducing the time the Lords could delay a bill from two sessions to one, this was done in order to prevent the Lords from derailing the Labour Government’s plans for the sweeping nationalisation of strategic industries, such as the railways, coal, and steel, and the introduction of the Welfare State.

Further tinkering came in 1958 with the Life Peerages Act which created a new class of peerage, those who were appointed for life and held full voting rights in the Lords, but whose peerages were not hereditary. Since 1965 almost all new peerages have been life peerages, with the notable exception of the hereditary baronetcy conferred by Margaret Thatcher upon her husband Denis in 1990, which passed to their son Mark upon Denis Thatcher’s death in 2003. Mark Thatcher continues to hold the peerage and entitlement to a seat in the Lords despite being involved in numerous controversies and allegations of corrupt business dealings, and being convicted, fined, and given a four year suspended prison sentence in South Africa for funding the 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup d’état attempt, he is barred from entry to the USA and deprived of residency in Monaco as an ‘undesirable’ but he still has the right to influence British laws and legislation.

There were further abortive attempts at reform of the Lords in the 1960s. In 1968 Harold Wilson’s Labour government published a white paper proposing some fairly anodyne measures that would tinker with the composition of the Lords. Perhaps the most significant of these was that the sitting government of the day would gain the right to appoint sufficient life peers to ensure that it had a majority in the Lords, this was to counter the in-built Conservative majority in the Lords created by the hereditary peers who numerically dominated in the chamber. Hereditary peers who were currently members of the Lords would have remained as non-voting members for life, but their heirs would not succeed to their seats.

Although scarcely earth-shattering, these proposals died a death, Wilson announced in April 1969 that his government would not proceed with the bill.

The matter was left to lie again, although there was mounting concern throughout the Thatcher era about the advantages granted to the Conservatives by an upper House composed primarily of hereditary Conservative peers. In the 1997 General Election the Labour party under Tony Blair had a manifesto commitment to radical reform of the Lords. The manifest declared: “The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute.”

Many believed, and were not disabused by the Labour party in their belief, that Labour would move immediately to abolish the hereditary nature of the Lords and would then introduce proposals to make the upper chamber elected. Labour promised to establish a Royal Commission to examine further reform. Blair’s government passed the House of Lords Act 1999 which created a majority of appointed Peers in the Lords with a remaining group of 92 hereditary peers who were supposed to retain their voting rights only until the second phase of reform was complete. These 92 were elected from within those who had a right to be members of the House of Lords as a result of their hereditary status. The government asserted that this arrangement was to be purely temporary until the second stage of reform was completed. 23 years later they are still there.

However Labour soon backtracked on proposals for an elected upper chamber, by 2003 Blair was speaking in favour of a fully appointed Upper House. Plans to make the Lords an elected chamber were quietly dropped. The attraction of life peerages to a Prime Minister are obvious. They are the crack cocaine of political patronage, permitting Prime Ministers to reward their cronies and toadies, as we have seen recently with Boris Johnson awarding peerages to Alister Jack and Nadine Dorries. Peerages are doled out to party donors, superannuated politicians, and as a reward for failure in public office. It is a system which reeks of corruption and which has led to an ever more bloated House of Lords, stuffed to the gills with political lightweights many of whom rarely bother to show up.

Although it’s now being reported that Keir Starmer wants to abolish life peerages and the remaining hereditary peers and replace them with a fully elected upper chamber, that is not in fact what Labour is proposing. Rather what we are getting is another promise to ‘reform the Lords’. All that Labour is promising is a plan to hold a ‘consultation’ on what a reformed new chamber might look like, and a promise to in addition to ‘reform’ the current appointments process.

In other words, it’s just more of the same old waffle, which will lead to an upper chamber which serves the interests of the British establishment and not the people. Same as it ever was.


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