Why abolishing the House of Lords is not the answer

Keir Starmer is right to want to reform the second chamber but the key question is how far to go

November 24, 2022
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This weekend saw eye-catching headlines about Labour plans to abolish the House of Lords. Following multiple recent controversies about Lords appointments—including resignation honours for Boris Johnson and even Liz Truss—most people would agree that there are some pretty serious problems with our second chamber. But Starmer’s reported proposal was unusually strong. Meanwhile, last Friday, members in the Lords itself debated a bill, proposed by constitutional expert Lord (Philip) Norton of Louth, to introduce far smaller-scale changes to the appointments process.

So what should happen with the House of Lords, and how? Should we aim at the kind of tweaks proposed by Lord Norton, or more radical reform? Has the time even arrived to sweep the whole thing away? Few believe that the Lords should stay as it is, but what should the priorities be?

First, abolition would not be wise. To remove the House of Lords and replace it with nothing would leave the House of Commons as our sole parliamentary check on the government’s power. Since the government almost invariably has a partisan majority in the Commons, that would significantly diminish parliamentary accountability. For all of its faults, the Lords does important work in holding ministers to account through questions and debates, and in scrutinising government legislation—indeed, it is where most amendments to government bills are made. But that doesn’t mean that unelected legislators are calling the shots; often the chamber serves as a forum to explore concerns first expressed in the Commons, and allows compromises to be reached out of the media spotlight. Most amendments made are concessions by ministers in response to parliamentarians’ suggestions, a process often informed by experts and specialist outside groups. Any changes made in the Lords then have to be approved by MPs, who have the final say. Without such opportunities for second thought, government decisions would inevitably be more rushed and likely often regretted later. These dynamics explain why many of the world’s largest and longest-established democracies also have second chambers—among them the US, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan.

So does this suggest that Starmer is wrong? Not necessarily. Reading beyond the headlines, it seems that his goal is not really abolition, but radical reform. The Observer story suggested that “Labour will hold a consultation on the composition and size of a new chamber as well as immediate reforms to the current appointments process,” and that Starmer wants “an upper house of nations and regions”. A commission chaired by former prime minister Gordon Brown is working up proposals. So this is a different proposition altogether.

Large-scale Lords reform has rarely been far from the political agenda. Throughout the 20th century there was much discussion of such ideas, with the first government commitment to “a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis” dating back to the 1911 Parliament Act. As the Act noted (with a certain understatement), “such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”. And so things have remained, notwithstanding ambitious proposals from Harold Wilson’s government in 1968, a whole string of proposals from the Blair and Brown governments, and a government bill promoted by David Cameron and Nick Clegg during the coalition years. 

What tends to scupper proposals is not resistance from the Lords, but disagreement on the government side in the House of Commons. Wilson’s bill was dropped after 88 fruitless hours of Commons committee stage, while the coalition’s was withdrawn following a large-scale rebellion by Conservative MPs. The Blair/Brown years were also marked by government backbench rebellions and splits, with proposals for a largely appointed chamber dismissed as insufficiently democratic, and proposals for a largely elected one viewed by MPs as a threat to the primacy of the Commons. Starmer should be under no illusions: ambitious Lords reform is—to say the least—difficult to achieve.

Several Labour party manifestos have pledged a second chamber of the nations and regions, and the Brown commission is expected to say the same. But so far, such an idea has been more of a slogan than a properly worked out plan. 

There are many potential ways in which a reformed second chamber could represent the nations and regions—for example, the Australian and US Senates are directly elected by voters in the states; the Austrian and South African second chambers are elected by sub-national legislatures; the German Bundesrat represents state governments and the Canadian Senate is appointed on a provincial basis. Proposals in the last 20 years have tended to suggest direct election in nations and regions, along with some appointed members. 

But various obstacles have got in the way of making progress towards a second chamber of the nations and regions. Aside from the concerns about Commons primacy, there are questions about how the patchy and uneven nature of devolution across the UK could be reflected in a second chamber, and how such a body could really bind these component parts together in a meaningful way. Some key players—most obviously the SNP—have no particular desire to do that. To work convincingly, this kind of model would need careful consultation and—crucially—support from within the devolved areas. Achieving agreement could be tricky, and would certainly take time.

Meanwhile, there are urgent problems with the Lords that increasingly undermine its capacity as a legislative institution. That is something we all need to worry about, and these shorter-term problems were the target of Lord Norton’s bill. The uncontrolled nature of prime ministerial appointments to the chamber means that it has grown ever larger (up from 666 members in 1999 to around 830 today). There are no controls on party balance, and appointments since 2010 have seen the Conservatives move from rough parity to holding nearly 100 seats more than Labour. There have long been complaints about the quality of some appointees, including party donors. The House of Lords Appointments Commission is a non-statutory body, which judges appointees only on limited propriety grounds rather than broader suitability. Its recommendations are only advisory, and Boris Johnson on one occasion overruled the Commission's advice. All of this risks bringing the chamber—and thereby parliament—into disrepute, and in doing so weakens its ability to hold the government to account.

The public recognise these problems. In a recent Constitution Unit poll, just 6 per cent of respondents believed that the prime minister should decide appointments to the Lords, versus 58 per cent who preferred this role to be held by an independent commission. A vanishing 3 per cent thought that there should be no cap on the size of the Lords, against 65 per cent who preferred it to be no larger than the 650-member House of Commons. Notably, dissatisfaction with the appointments process did not necessarily drive support for an elected alternative to the Lords—respondents were equally split between supporting election and appointment. Those seeking to overhaul the House of Lords need to take into account the need for public buy-in for reform.

The last most significant reform of the Lords took place in 1999, under Tony Blair’s government. This removed the vast majority of hereditary peers from the chamber, leaving it a slimmer, more party-balanced and ultimately more defensible body, which came to challenge the government more effectively. This was formally the first element of a two-stage reform, with the intended second stage never reached due to internal party disagreements. The words from the Observer about “immediate reforms to the current appointments process” suggest that Starmer may have a similar two-stage process in mind, which would be very wise. The history of Lords reform is one in which small changes to deal with the most glaring problems sometimes happen, while larger ones tend to fail. But small changes (for example in 1911, 1949, 1958 and 1999) have often proved crucially important, particularly cumulatively, and shouldn’t be seen as the enemy of large-scale reform. Rather, a failure to pursue small-scale reform may in practice prove to be the enemy of achieving any reform at all.