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The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank
The resignation honours lists in which Boris Johnson and Liz Truss rewarded their acolytes emerged over the summer as just the latest problem bequeathed to Rishi Sunak by his prime ministerial predecessors. Sir Keir Starmer, his Labour rival, quickly claimed the moral high ground by vowing never to issue resignation honours in the event of him becoming prime minister. But the Labour party could soon face its own ermine-clad headache.
Gordon Brown’s commission, at Starmer’s invitation, has bestowed on the Labour leader one of the party’s most distinctive yet problematic policy promises at the general election: the abolition and replacement of the House of Lords. But how to implement this policy — while not blowing up the rest of Labour’s policy agenda — is already troubling party strategists.
Lords reform is hardly a novel cause, but it is uniquely difficult to implement. The ever-expanding ranks of peers would have to vote for their own end, while MPs are sensitive to any alternative model for parliament’s upper house that might threaten the supremacy of the Commons.
Nor is it straightforward to settle on the model. No government has yet succeeded in building consensus in parliament let alone the country. There are often said to be as many ideas for reform as there are peers, and their number has swollen to over 800.
This time around, the problem will be thornier even than that faced by previous would-be reformers. Brown’s ambitious proposals explicitly tie abolition to Labour’s wider agenda of devolving power and money to local areas — turning the upper house into an elected “assembly of the nations and regions” to oversee relations between the UK’s different levels of government and monitor geographical inequalities. Making democratic reform integral to Labour’s regional and economic policy was an eye-catching move but multiplied the difficulties of implementing both.
Worse, peers contemplating a bill with existential consequences for themselves would be seriously distracted from the immediate task of enacting Labour’s core legislative programme. This would be tricky at the best of times but Tory peers have been created at more than two and a half times the rate of Labour ones since 2010, leaving Labour with fewer than a quarter of seats in the upper house. While it is usual for no party to have an overall majority, Labour’s cohort of 172 — many of whom are on the elderly side, perhaps expecting to wind down parliamentary activity — are now outnumbered even by the 179 cross-benchers.
For Starmer, the optics are tricky: he would have to make a swath of appointments to the institution he is proposing to abolish in order to get his legislative programme through. But the alternative — prioritising constitutional reform over Labour’s central policy programme — seems impossible.
As the IfG’s forthcoming Review of the UK Constitution concludes, the legitimacy of the process of constitutional change is key to its success. One way through would be to combine immediate, pragmatic reforms with a process designed to secure public consent for a revitalised second chamber. Expelling the remaining 90 hereditary peers and appointing new life peers on fixed terms would signal clear intent. Meanwhile, a citizens’ assembly could be tasked with agreeing the key principles for a new second chamber.
Learning from Ireland’s successful approach to amending its constitution, such an assembly should report to parliament, with its recommendations then directly passing into law or put to a referendum. This process would justify a slower timetable for major Lords reform while a new government pushed through its other manifesto promises. Politically, giving democratic legitimacy to the future shape of parliament would help undercut political resistance in the Lords itself.