The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

Labour must not play games with House of Lords reform

Lords reform is a test of the party's credibility.

A Labour poster from 1909.
A 1909 Labour poster shows workers breaking down the door of the House of Lords.

It is hardly surprising that, in its 112 year history, Labour has vacillated on some of its founding principles. Keir Hardie’s commitment to a National Minimum Wage fell foul of the trade union movement’s 1970s mantra that rights at work could only come with a union card. Thus it was that Trades Union Congress delegates voted against a minimum wage well into the 1980s.

Our early allegiance to Proportional Representation only lasted until the landslide victory under First Past the Post (FPTP) in 1945 six years before one of FPTP’s little perversions handed power back to the Conservatives (which polled a quarter of a million fewer votes).

The policy that most clearly connects Hardie with Ed Miliband is reform of the House of Lords. Along with universal suffrage, an accountable second chamber has been the defining constitutional characteristic of a party established to pursue a more equal society.

However, early idealism had to be tempered by the realities of gaining and exercising power; we continued to abhor a parliament based on inheritance and patronage. Attlee reduced its powers, Wilson and Callaghan changed its composition. None of them had the benefit of a cross-party consensus to radically alter this anachronistic institution.

As with the National Minimum Wage (and Hardie’s other great constitutional objective – a Scottish parliament) it was, ironically, New Labour that began the process of delivering some of the party’s original objectives.

Labour’s 1997 manifesto, focused as it was on the 21st century, stated that: “The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”

The “self-contained” reform proved to be the easy bit with 655 hereditary peers leaving the Chamber and the residue of 92 (now 90) remaining only until the next stage of reform.

As a result of that change, parliament convened in November 1999 with a second chamber that was far smaller (and politically balanced) than at any time in its history. The Lords had only 16 more members than the Commons, but without that elusive “next stage” of reform patronage has accelerated to fill the gap left by the departing hereditary peers to the point where it threatens to wipe out the relatively modest constitutional gains those 1999 reforms achieved.

There are now 141 more peers than there were 13 years ago. The coalition agreement seeks to raise the number by a further 203 (to reflect the last general election result). Taken together with the reduction of MPs, there is every prospect that by 2015 the House of Lords will have almost twice as many appointed or hereditary members as those elected to the Commons.

Only two other countries have a second chamber larger than the first – Kazakhstan and Burkina Faso. I doubt if either of those can match the unrepresentative nature of our bloated House of Lords. Some 44 per cent of peers are from London and the South East; under a fifth are women and there are more peers aged over 90 than under 40.

But the most serious criticism of the Lords remains its democratic illegitimacy and its institutionalised snobbery.

The dictionary definition of a Lord is a master, a feudal superior, a dominant person. Our quest for a fairer society can never succeed while we tolerate this embodiment of privilege at the heart of our democracy.

There are few politicians prepared to defend the indefensible. But there are plenty whose commitment to reform acts as a cover for preserving the status quo. Division over the details of reform have protected the Lords for a century and are capable of doing so indefinitely. Now Labour faces a very real test over the government’s proposals for the second stage of reform that we promised in 1997.

A test not just because David Cameron managed to change Conservative policy to the extent that their 2010 manifesto committed to “a mainly elected second chamber” (thus providing an unprecedented consensus and an unarguable case for the Parliament Act to be used to force this through the Lords).

It is also a test of our determination to bring about genuine change in a country shocked by the scandalous failure of its institutions. Ed Miliband deserves to be the beneficiary of a public mood that sees preservation of the old order almost in the same way that the post-war generation saw the 1930s. He cannot succeed if the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) decide that playing games with the coalition is more important than establishing real constitutional reform. The public may well suspect that the aim is to preserve a lucrative retirement home for MPs.

Of the many cross-party attempts to move this issue forward over the last decade, the most impressive was Breaking the Deadlock. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and published under the auspices of UCL in 2005, the report argued for a chamber of 400 members, predominately elected by a system of PR, serving a single period of office in a House with no government majority. It provided the blue print upon which the current proposed legislation is based and of the five MPs who authored it, two, (Ken Clarke and George Young) are now Cabinet members as are two prominent supporters (William Hague and Francis Maude).

As we have discovered with family-friendly employment rights and same-sex marriage, a progressive illusion may not survive the reality of Conservative opinion but the debate that Labour began has shifted public and political opinion to a significant extent. To be critical of David Cameron on this issue at a time when he has led his party towards a position first established by great Labour figures such as Robin Cook and Tony Wright is to indulge in the worst kind of opportunist, tribal politics.

Constitutional change requires a public referendum and it is right that we challenge the absence of one in the coalition’s proposals. It is consistent with our stance on a range of issues from devolution to changing the voting system. The proposal that should be put to the British electorate has been largely determined over 15 years of debate during which necessary compromises have been made on all sides of the reform argument. It is now time to build on that work in order to establish a smaller, mainly elected second chamber which has democratic legitimacy and public support.

This may well be a test of modernity for the Conservative Party; but it is also a test of credibility for Labour.