Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Reform now

Despite events in parliament this year, reform of the House of Lords must not fall off the political agenda. Reform is still required but we need to carefully rethink how it proceeds and what form it takes. We should not assume that the only option is a quick fix of electing one percentage or another, as proposed in the recent House of Lords Reform bill. Instead, we argue for an ongoing programme of reform in the first instance, with a longer-term move towards a chamber for the UK parliament elected on a federal basis. With the Scottish independence referendum approaching and calls growing for more devolution, this proposal addresses wider needs of reform and offers the chance to reconnect parliament with a disillusioned electorate and finally give expression to the nature of the modern British state.

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The government’s ill-conceived attempt to reform the House of Lords is dead and buried – unless a future Labour government attempts to revive it. Reviving anything like the recent bill would be a serious mistake and would end in the same dismal failure that so predictably awaited Clegg’s bill. This does not mean we should carry on with the present arrangements, but a serious attempt at reform will require some hard thinking about the purpose of reform and the impact it may have on other parts of the constitution.

For radical thinkers the very title ‘House of Lords’ has long invited an immediate assumption of abolition or election – but that should not be the first reaction. The key question which should inform any debate on reform, or abolition, is: ‘What do we want the second chamber to do?’ If there is no obvious job for it, and if we think there is no risk to good governance without it, then abolition can be on the agenda. If there is a job for it, then what is that job?  Only after we have answered that question can we sensibly address the way it is constructed.

Currently the Lords do an extremely good job of scrutinising bills, and especially government bills. Successive governments have used the House as a useful way of improving legislation that was inadequately or badly drafted and scrutinised. Three recent examples are the localism bill which attracted 514 successful government amendments; the health and social care bill which attracted 390; the legal aid, sentencing, and punishment of offenders bill which attracted 352. Similar figures would apply to the previous Labour government’s bills. This raises a very important question: why can’t the House of Commons do successful scrutiny? That is a matter we will return to, but without the revising role of the Lords, legislation would currently leave parliament in a far worse state than it does now. On this basis alone the Lords are necessary and do an important job.

It is common ground that effective scrutiny of legislation is vitally important. The House of Lords is essentially a revising chamber that recommends changes to bills put through primarily by the Commons. It has no power to insist on its revisions becoming law. Contrary to popular opinion the House of Lords is not able to legislate in the true sense. It cannot insist on legislation becoming law. Only the House of Commons can do that. It is the House of Commons that legislates in the UK. No other body has that power. Neither Monarch nor Lords can legislate. They can advise, warn, recommend but they cannot legislate. The fact that we use the term ‘legislate’ when discussing the Lords doesn’t mean they do legislate. They don’t.

If members of the House were elected we do not believe that they would accept a position where, having won a mandate, they were then left without the power to apply their policies – including the power to initiate legislation for them. Other countries deal with this problem by having written constitutions that define the powers of the two houses. We would therefore need to write a constitution and closely define the powers of the two Houses to help avoid what would otherwise be guaranteed conflict. This is one important question that the recent government bill failed to address.

However, this would be a mammoth task that would soak up a huge amount of parliamentary time with no guarantee of success. It partly explains why reform is more talked about then practised. For years, radicals have known what they were against but they did not agree on what they were for.  Importantly, a written constitution would divert us from what remains possible even within the framework of the current set-up. It could delay further reform of the House.

What can we do now, within the existing system? Clearly the remaining hereditary peers need to go. Many of them are very capable and work hard but the hereditary principle has been the strongest point of objection for many politicians, and not just on the left. Other reforms are being proposed by existing members of the Lords. Lord Steel’s bill on retirement and exclusion of members in certain circumstances or Baroness Hayman’s proposals on a reformed appointment system are two current examples. Prime ministerial patronage is still far too strong, hence the need for a more independent appointment system. We must also drastically reduce the size of the House – 850 members is ridiculously high. Lord Steel’s bill that excludes members who rarely attend and allows for retirement does help on this but is not a full answer.

So we do not need an all-embracing bill to reform the Lords: we need a concerted and continuing process of renewal and change. If in five to 10 years’ time the House was far smaller, appointment was by a transparent and open system, and the hereditary principle had gone then those reforms alone would make the House more appropriate to today’s world and it would still be able to carry out its scrutinising functions as well as the other important tasks it performs.

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Britain’s ability to constantly reform and update its governmental structure is a great strength. No other country has achieved such a free, open and stable society for as long as we have. In recent years we have become rather complacent about this inner strength and we should not do so. Change is happening at an ever-faster pace and it is increasingly difficult for politicians to win the confidence and the support of the public and involvement in politics is far less than it should be in a vibrant democracy. Yet people are not tired of politics with a small ’p’. They want to be involved in the issues that matter to them and this can be a fast-changing menu of issues. This is one reason why we should look at the third option – a federal chamber for the UK.

We have allowed ourselves to be mesmerised by the argument about Lords reform to the exclusion of more important constitutional reforms. One of these is the structure of the British state. Since the Act of Union in 1703 Britain has been a federal state without a federal structure. The union of the United Kingdom has by any standard been the most successful economic and political union in the world. It brought peace and prosperity and allowed freedom under the law to underpin the world-changing industrial revolution. The lack of a federal structure, however, left the UK an over-centralised state.

In recent years devolution has had a growing effect. Powers have been devolved not only to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but also to the great cities of Britain. Elected mayors are now established and more are likely to follow. We also have a European Union that favours and offers financial support to regions. One of the ways we can re-engage the British public with party politics is through localism. A sense of identity is very important in political engagement. People can and do have a sense of identity to their local community as well as to the nation-state – the Olympics provided a useful reminder of this fact.

If we are to build on this then a second federal chamber has much to offer and it is also a more constructive alternative to the Scottish National party’s desire to break up a successful union. In a sense the SNP has already conceded this point by saying that after separation it would still seek to keep the monarchy, the pound sterling, the armed forces and the Bank of England. Whatever else that is, it is not independence.

We do not underestimate the complexity of the arguments around federalism. It is not a quick and easy option. That is why a Royal Commission is necessary, but we need to pay more attention to what is already happening in the UK. The devolution programme introduced by the last Labour government has created the potential for even further devolution but also created the risk of the break-up of the UK. Constant calls for an English parliament add to the risk of fracturing in the British state unless serious action is taken.  Federalism can also answer the growing desire of people to have government structures closer to them. This is already very noticeable in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

A federal system in the UK is likely to be a different model to the type operating in countries like the United States. One of the key problem areas in the UK is that England has by far the largest population. Would the four parts of the UK have equal representation in numbers? Or should the numbers reflect the relative populations? If the latter, how do you avoid England calling the shots – a complaint that already aggravates the new devolved regions?

The experience of devolving power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland demonstrates that it is possible for the UK government to agree areas of devolution without threatening the power of the central government. The lesson of that legislation that we must be clear about is what powers are devolved and not get into the more complex areas of what is not to be devolved. Anything not expressly devolved by legislation remains the domain of central government.

Our final point concerns the reform of the House of Commons. We have a high regard for the Commons but we do not think it produces quality legislation. It is the cockpit of the nation’s political life and it should remain so but it has to recognise that, while party politics must inevitably dominate the chamber, it has to find a way of moderating the political battle in committees on bills. The success of departmental select committees shows how it can be done. Party politics is still alive and well in those committees but they do not dominate to the exclusion of holding the executive to account. We do not have the space to expand on this but it is perfectly possible for the Commons to develop procedures in bill committees to improve the quality of legislation. Failure to do so means we will always need a House of Lords to do the work that should and could be done by the Commons. Our proposal for ongoing reform of the House of Lords alongside a Royal Commission allows time for the House of Commons to reform itself in a way that would ensure better scrutiny of legislation while the details of a federal chamber were being examined in the necessary detail.

The approach recommended here allows us to escape from the strait-jacket we have imposed on ourselves with the current thinking on Lords reform while offering incremental change to the House Lords and more radical and longer-term thinking on some fundamental questions about the constitution.


Clive Soley, George Foulkes, Helen Liddell, John McFall are Labour members of the House of Lords


Photo: UK Parliament

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Clive Soley, George Foulkes, Helen Liddell and John McFall


  • embracing the lord steel reforms is a choice to further entrench the current situation and further legitimise the unelected lords. this cannot be an option for serious reformers.

  • If you are considering a more federalist, devolved approach, look to Germany. Its upper chamber is composed of nominated (it could be elected) representatives from the sixteen states of Germany. Also, rather than England, consider using the existing English regions. Give them proportional representation in the upper chamber, and the eleven UK regions may have a stronger and more effective voice in the lawmaking process. Just a thought, anyway.

  • Direct elections to the HOL does not add to our democratic status or functioning but clearly would destroy what works well for the whole UK parliament. The Joint Committee said that secondary elections should be considered to the HOL if the former failed-it has! Starting with what we have now we could rebalance into a smaller house using the votes cast for the Commons at last election into proportion of seats in HOL using a figure of say 450 seats. Each party would produce its list of Life peers for elections and crossbenchers their own. Crossbenches proportion being calculated from registered electors who did not vote. The prevents party domination in the HOL and gives a truer representation of party strength in the country. overall. Once this was in place further reform should continue and evolve on a consensual and incremental basis trough bills like the Steal bill. (which I hope will get through) It may well still end up as a directly elected house but it would have evolved within our constitution and not destroyed it.The role and numbers of crossbenchers has the potential to address a degree of federal or expert representation which could well evolve too.

  • I have alwas found
    the terms Lords and Commons repugnant. It is awful that we have a system of goverment divided on such archaic class lines, no wonder that the unelected aristocracy sill rule the roost. A federal system of government would go a long way in improving our democracy but our class blighted society would benefit greatly by us becoming a republic aswell. Perhaps a “Royal” commission could be set up to look into this also ?

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