Reforming the Lords as part of reforming politics
Post for Better Politics by Campaign for a Democratic Upper House (CDUH)
This post is submitted on behalf of the Campaign for a Democratic Upper House (CDUH), a grouping of Labour members who support a democratic second chamber.
One Nation Labour should introduce a wholly or largely elected second chamber, taking forward work already done by the last Labour government. We should seize this opportunity to bridge part of the gap between politicians and people; to be seen to give some power away by strengthening Parliamentary scrutiny (which will improve its measures in the longer term anyway); and, to make a reform of historic proportions to our political system.
The House of Lords is a symbol of privilege and patronage which should have no place in a One Nation Britain. It is also part of the gap between politicians and people that feeds political disengagement. It lacks the democratic legitimacy to perform its functions properly, and as a result Parliament is weaker than it should be. This is no reflection on many of its members, including many Labour peers, who are hard-working and do an excellent job within the constraints of a chamber which represents no-one, and in which the electorate have nobody to whom they can take issues as of right. Access to the House is dominated by lobbyists and NGOs, and its membership biased to London and the South East, further removing it from society as a whole. Reform would strengthen Parliament, providing a greater balance to the Executive.
Labour should commit itself to legislate in the next Parliament to introduce a second chamber of no more than 450 members that is wholly (100%) or largely (80%) directly elected, with elected members chosen for renewable terms by a system of proportional representation. The new House should be introduced gradually over up to three Parliaments. Any new appointed members should be restricted to independent experts.
The new House should retain its current roles of revising legislation and scrutinising the Executive, to which could be added providing a new forum to represent the interests and concerns of the nations and regions of the UK (whatever the result of the Scottish referendum), and taking a larger role in scrutinising European legislation.
The primacy of the House of Commons should be maintained, both by re-applying the Parliament Acts and other legislation, and by confirming most of the existing conventions which underpin the relationship. This should be done either by passing resolutions in both Houses setting out the conventions to be maintained or, if this cannot be agreed, by translating them into legislation. The right of the Commons to secure its legislation, after the second chamber has had a proper opportunity to ask it to think again, should be reinforced by amending the rules governing the exchange of amendments to bills, and by replacing the Lordsí veto over statutory instruments with a delaying power.
The remaining hereditary peers should be removed, with existing life peers remaining over a significant transitional period.
Unlike in 2010, there should be no referendum. Circumstances have changed - the referendum promised on Lords reform in the 2010 manifesto was intended to accompany another on the Alternative Vote. Referendums can become plebiscites on the party in power or be distorted by other issues, and can weaken a party in government. There was no referendum on Labourís first step to reforming the Lords, when it removed most of the hereditary peers. If Labour sets out clear proposals in its manifesto, there will be no need for a referendum.
Labour is in a position to move ahead quickly on this, rather than needing further deliberation. All the main parties committed themselves to reform in 2010, and the Commons supported it by an overwhelming majority in 2012. Alongside the changes outlined above, the essentials of a reformed House were set out in White Papers by the last Labour government. There is no need for further delay. In relation to Scotland, for example, if there is a No vote in the Scottish referendum, the role of the second chamber in relation to Scottish affairs would evolve over time, as would that of the House of Commons. Lords reform offers One Nation Labour an opportunity to make a political reform of historic proportions.