Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour can fix the Lords mess

Backdowns, U-turns, rebellions and revolts. It’s been an extraordinary six months of government management.

Now bringing democracy to the House of Lords joins the list of things that was going to happen, but now is not.

It is, of course, a mess. By sticking with the system of having hundreds of people appointed by a highly partisan process to co-write the laws of the United Kingdom, who knows how many nobles we will end up with at Westminster.

However, the issue remains important – both to the democratic architecture of the UK and for the citizens who live here. For all the dismissive talk of the political class, whenever the public have been asked whether they should choose their lawmakers, the overwhelming answer is yes.

Interestingly, it is Labour supporters who register the highest support for Lords reform. Support for the current system is stuck in single digits. Of course it is not the number one thing the public talk about, but that just means the decision to reform should be taken quickly, not used as an excuse for no action at all.

While natural political tribalism requires that there be joy and dancing around yet another policy carcass, Labour should ignore what it means for the Tories and Liberal Democrats and concentrate on the opportunity that the backdown has created.

The Conservatives have now been exposed as being unable and/or unwilling to deliver reform.  This now places Labour in the position as the only party that can lead a government which is able to bring about historic change.

It was good to see Sadiq Khan immediately move to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to Lords reform in the wake of Nick Clegg’s announcement. Such a signal is important to people who look to Labour as reformers, not players, and who might have been disappointed at the perception of game-playing and overemphasis on issues like timetable motions.

Labour has form and credentials on this issue which makes the case compelling. New Labour’s bold move to end the hereditary peers was set out in the 1997 manifesto and was delivered without a referendum but with the party united behind a leadership determined to do the right thing. It wasn’t popular with the establishment, but the measure showed 655 people who asserted they had been born to make laws for Britain politely to the door.

It was ever thus. As Alan Johnson pointed out in his recent New Statesman article: ‘along with universal suffrage, an accountable second chamber has been the defining constitutional characteristic of a [Labour] party established to pursue a more equal society.’

So the hand of history has once again turned to Labour.

Given that the top priority for a Labour or Labour-led government must be reviving the economy and creating jobs, it is vital to use the time afforded by the balance of this parliament to develop a comprehensive, well thought-out reform package for the second chamber that can be immediately acted on by Ed Miliband in the same way that Tony Blair was able to at the beginning of his government.

It means sorting through the issues raised during this round of proposals and working out what needs more work and what were simply fig leaves for people who will never agree with democracy in the Lords. This is an important process to get right, lest we are derailed again by what the Fabians’ Andrew Harrop has rightly described as ‘an unholy alliance of democratic purists and undercover saboteurs.’

Labour needs to talk to those who were concerned about the primacy of the House of Commons – including many in its own ranks – to work out definitions and conventions that make it clear the second chamber is not there to usurp the first.

Issues such as whether the proposed single term of 15 years is right, the sizing of the electoral districts, the voting system to use, and whether or not a referendum is needed also have to be decided before the manifesto is published.

And there’s the fundamental question of what the second chamber actually does that needs to be nailed down.

None of these discussions – and, crucially, decisions – can take place in a vacuum. There are wider constitutional issues that need to be taken into account and acknowledged. The policy review being led by Jon Cruddas affords this opportunity but the easy option of using the ‘wider issues’ argument to kick this into the long grass can’t be an option. It’s been there long enough.

Labour should make clear it is not satisfied just by seeing the governing parties giving each other bloody noses. The real satisfaction should come from being the architects of a proper, functioning democracy by giving the public the say over who writes the laws of the land and ending the 100-year debate.


Didn’t see the New Statesman supplement on Lords reform? Visit the Electoral Reform Society for a copy.


Darren Hughes was a minister in the Helen Clark government and a Labour MP in the New Zealand House of Representatives. He is now director of campaigns and research for the Electoral Reform Society.


Photo:  UK Parliament

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Darren Hughes


  • The chamber needs to be 100% elected – neither I, nor most party members buy into the Blairite 20% appointed option – apparently there are people who “just don’t do elections”.
    But we must lead on the issue, and not meekly follow timid Liberal Democrat reforms hammered out with a reluctant Conservative Party (and then reneged on…). The Party was right not to back the Liberal Democrats, when requested to do so, and should make Lords reform part of an election manifesto for 2015. This would give us the additional filip that the Lib Dems would vote down the Conservative constituency gerrymander, and we would stand a better chance of winning.

  • “Of course it is not the number one thing the public talk about, but that just means the decision to reform should be taken quickly, not used as an excuse for no action at all.” writes Darren Hughes.
    Some illogic here. There are many ‘issues’ of even less interest to the British public than paralysing the House of Commons by allowing the Other Place (inevitably) to use its new democratic credentials systematically to clip the wings of the First Past the Post House, and/or to allow the Supreme Court to arbitrate over a gridlocked legislature. Choose your own – perhaps the risk of an invasion from Mars is your candidate. By the logic of our Electoral “Reform” Society we should devote much political and legislative time (and surely financial resources) to prepare against this threat…..After all, the public are apathetic on the issue, so we must “show leadership”. Perhaps the ‘great unwashed’ show good sense in regarding economic issues as far more important…..Our movement would do well to focus on those issues and on re-establishing our credibility in that area, as a number one priority – and number two as well, and number three – why not? There are plenty of major economic issues about…..

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