We should abolish the House of Lords, not reform it

Labour should completely reject the coalition's proposals.

The House of Lords is a medieval relic from a time when land ownership was a major source of political power, and just as ownership of land moved from generation to generation so did the titles. As the House of Commons became the prime chamber the powers of the Lords were eroded and life peerages broke the historical link with land ownership.

This body we are commonly told must be replaced by one which is part elected and part-appointed; but it would inevitably acquire – through election – an authority that could be used to challenge the primacy of the Commons.

There is a case for a national advisory committee to look at legislation and make recommendations to the Commons, which would be the deciding body. This committee should be a representative gathering of people from different parts of our society, which would not be called Lords or enjoy any of the finery associated with that chamber.

How such an advisory body could be established would require further thought, to be sure that it would be genuinely representative of experience and interests and would have a contribution to make to legislation through its advice.

To do this would be to abolish the House of Lords altogether and start afresh in a way that was useful and constructive. The Labour Party should be working on this idea and should reject completely the proposals the coalition government has brought forward.

This piece originally appeared in the New Statesman supplement "Reforming the House of Lords", free with this week's magazine.

Peers sit in the chamber of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.
Tony Benn retired from Parliament in 2001 after more than 50 years to ‘devote more time to politics’. The longest serving Labour MP in the history of the party he served as a cabinet minister under Wilson and Callaghan.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.