Labour must not play games with House of Lords reform

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

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.

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

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the middle-aged became the hedonists

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring.

Rare is the week that passes without more horrific tales of the debauchery of the youth. One photo has come to embody their supposed recklessness: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench in Bristol with bottles of booze scattered beneath her. The photograph is now a decade old, and the image it portrays is in urgent need of updating. The startling thing about today’s youth is now how much they indulge but how well behaved they are. They are putting their hedonistic parents and grandparents to shame.

Wherever you look, the picture is the same. Over a quarter of those aged 16-24 today are teetotal; just 29 per cent drink heavily in an average week, compared with 44 per cent a decade ago. Only 23 per cent of under-25s smoke, a 10 per cent decrease since 2001. Conception rates among under-18s are at their lowest since records began in 1969, and the number of sexually transmitted infections among those under-25 has also declined in the last five years. Today’s youth haven’t been resorting to narcotics, either: drug use among under-25s has fallen by over a quarter in the last decade.

Young fogeys are not only on the rise in Britain. In America teen sexual activity has decreased by one-fifth since 1988, and only 38 per cent of 12th grade students (those aged 17 and 18) said they have been drunk in the past year, compared to 52 per cent in 2001. Something similar is happening throughout Western Europe: in Spain, wine consumption has halved since 1980.

These trends reflect how times have changed for young people. The rise of online entertainment and socialising has its downsides, such as increased loneliness and anxiety, but teenagers and those in their early twenties have many more alternatives to boozing or smoking a spliff. “In past decades, teens might have smoked, drank and had sex because they didn’t have much else to do,” says Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me. “Now, teens have a world of entertainment and digital communication available on their phones 24/7.” And savvy youngsters know that social media has given debauchery an online afterlife. About half of recruiters in the UK already look at a candidate’s social media profile, according to a study last year from Career Builder, and a third of all recruiters have rejected candidates about finding evidence of binge-drinking or drug use online. Small wonder ambitious young people are so reluctant to indulge.

Today's youngsters have less money for booze and drugs. They have become poorer in the past decade: in real terms, full-time wages for those aged 18-21 and 22-29 were over 10 per cent lower in 2013 than in 2004. Add to this soaring housing costs, and Generation Rent is too preoccupied with saving to spend a great deal on drink and drugs: 670,000 more people aged 20-34 live with their parents in Britain today than in 1996. 

Parenting has become better, making it harder for children to drink away their teenage years. A quarter more 11-15-year-olds say their parents don’t like the idea of them drinking than in 2008. Parents have become older – the average age of a woman giving birth has passed 30 for the first time in history, and is four years higher than in the 1970s – and are having fewer children: the average number of children per UK woman has decreased from 2.93 to 1.83 in the past 50 years. “Over the last 20 years, parents have become more attentive and involved, more playful, less harshly punitive with their children. They are more educated about parenting, and monitor their children more closely,”  says Frances Gardner, Professor of Child and Family Psychology at Oxford University. “Women have also become more educated in general, and now have children at later age. So this may have improved the behaviour of young people.”

The government has also made life harder for youthful hedonists. Schemes like Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 and an increase in fines dished out to shops, pubs and clubs that allow those under-18 to drink have made it more difficult to source drink under-age. The ban on smoking in enclosed public places, including pubs and bars, and workplaces in 2007 has ushered in an era when smoking is increasingly regarded as an inconvenience. Meanwhile taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have been ramped up: across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today. Selling alcohol below cost price was banned last year.

But the decline of youthful excess is about far more than the cost. If price were all that was driving youngsters away from booze and fags, then use of drugs, which have become significantly cheaper in real terms, would be on the rise. That young people are far better behaved owes to something much deeper than a thinning out of their wallets: it is the result of a generation who know how competitive the workplace is and are ambitious to get ahead.

The recession and globalisation mean have made the employment market far tougher. Most important to making the workplace more cutthroat is the rise of skilled female graduates. Women outnumber men at university today – including Russell Group institutions. Thirty years ago, only 56 per cent of women aged 16-64 were in work; today, 69 per cent are.

Young people have never faced more competition for the best jobs. They know it, too: even at university, freed from the prying eyes of their parents, young people are shying away from drugs and booze. The trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 a year five years ago makes university an awfully expensive place to go if your only aim is to get hammered. And students know that indulging while their contemporaries swat up in lectures will make them less employable after they graduate. Greater competition in the workplace means that “the cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of consumer trends agency Future Foundation.

Some fear that as real wages increase, so will underage drinking and drug taking. Yet it seems more likely that young people will become even better behaved. Even as the economy has ticked up young people have not changed their habits. “If you grow up in the middle of a recession it will effect what you spend your money on,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Young people who have discovered alternatives to late-night drinking have learned there are plenty of other ways to be entertained than binge drinking into the early hours.

The changing face of Britain is making youthful excess less common. Although London is the richest part of the country, it is also among the least hedonistic: a third of adults in London do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any British region. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” says Dr James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK. Not only are ethnic far less likely to indulge in booze, drugs and fags, but the effect seems to rub off on their white British friends.

While millennials have proved better behaved than the previous generation of young people, they are now being outdone by those born in the new century. Children are a third less likely to bunk off school now than in 2008. Just 22 per cent of under-16s have tried a cigarette, half the number who had in 2003.

“All I need are cigarettes and alcohol,” Oasis sang 22 years ago. While the spirit of excess is dying among today’s young, it remains alive among their parents and grandparents. Sexually transmitted infections, which are declining among the under-25s, are rising fastest among those over 45. Those aged 65 and above are now more likely than any other group to drink alcohol at least five days a week, with those aged 45-65 not far behind. Perhaps, as Katherine Brown of the Institute of Alcohol Studies says: “Watching your parents get gozzled might put young people off.”

When they next open a bottle of wine (or three), the parents and grandparents of today’s teens should raise a glass to their responsible offspring. And when politicians complain about “broken Britain”, they should make it clear that they have middle-aged hedonists in mind. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war