The progressive case against Lords reform

We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

The House of Lords needs changing. But does it need this particular reform? Labour pledged this week that it will back Liberal Democrat proposals for an 80 per cent elected chamber. There are five reasons why the left might not think this is such a good idea.

1) Elections are not always and everywhere good. There are certain advantages to having legislators that are insulated from polls, Twitter tidal waves and yes, even voters. Experience demonstrates it breeds conviction politics. Whips are less of a threat, and amendments are more likely to be introduced and won. Significant changes - including blocking the government's attempts to limit trial by jury - have been won by the Lords. The welfare and NHS legislation is just the latest example.

Even if you agree with the principle that Lords should face the electorate, the current proposals would only allow future Lords to serve one term for fifteen years. As Lord Dobbs points out, this means that they will never be subject to genuine electoral accountability. When you can't get re-elected, you may as well do what you were going to do anyway.

2) You shouldn't look at how to design a chamber until you've decided what that chamber is for. At the moment there are whole bunch of unanswered questions. As Jesse Norman astutely points out (£), it makes no sense to consider the issue of electing the House of Lords before we've resolved devolution in Scotland. Who exactly will be governed by the House, and how? Do we want the Lords to be a pool of specialist knowledge providing scrutiny as it does now, or do we want a stronger check on an executive that is often criticised for having too much power, making us more like the US?

If electing our Lords really does give the second chamber more legitimacy, then power will be more dispersed and that may well result in more paralysis. People are already frustrated with governments for not being different or radical enough. With a rival second chamber, this may well get worse. What if the left wanted to come in and set up a universal care service? Or pursue more meaningful devolution? Radical agendas will almost certainly be harder to implement.

3) Ironically, we may see a decrease in diversity. Think of disabled peers like Baroness Jane Campbell. It is much harder for them to fight and win an election than it is to get an appointment. Similarly, we can say goodbye to crossbench MPs and the valuable independence they bring. To get elected to the Lords, you'll have to be a member of a political party - and presumably we'll be presented with candidates who couldn't quite make it to the first chamber.

Democracy is about a lot more than being able to vote. One of the most common criticisms of politicians is that we come from increasingly homogenous backgrounds, turning politics into a career rather than a service. Standing for election often requires wealth. Increasingly you have to be in a position to offer free labour through internships and live in London. Right now the Lords is relatively diverse, at least in terms of experience. If we create an elected second chamber without addressing who stands for election and how, we can expect more of the same.

4) Lords reform is not the public's priority right now. No one talks about the constitution on the doorstep. People are worried about their jobs, their homes and their families. We've already had the AV referendum - spending our time debating technical legislation may look like more navel gazing, especially when the Lords are relatively popular. Research by Meg Russell at UCL shows that the Lords were held in higher esteem than the Commons even before the expenses scandal broke. Shaking it up risks making politics look less relevant, not more.

5) It may hand a huge amount of power to the Liberal Democrats. If the second house became more significant, the LibDems' role as kingmaker would become even more important. And let's not forget that this whole programme is their deal anyway. As Andrew Neil points out, Lords reform is their prize for supporting the Conservative's constitutional boundaries that damage Labour.

Hereditary peers are embarrassing, but what if we could find some way of making appointments with legitimacy. What if we had a chamber that was picked to be more representative - the head of trades in industry, charities, our leaders in art, business, and education. That would bring the wealth of British experience to the table in decision making, whilst preserving a distinctive second chamber that didn't rival the first. The public already believes that legislative scrutiny and listening are more important than votes. We know democracy is deeper than elections. We should honour that.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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What are Len McCluskey's chances of re-election at Unite?

The union boss's re-election bid will have far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. 

Len McCluskey has stepped down early as general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, in order to stand again for a third term. The contest has potentially far-reaching consequences for the Labour party. McCluskey was elected in 2013 to serve a five-year term; but his supporters hope that the move will allow him to stay in post until the next general election. 

Unite, as well as being Britain’s biggest trade union, is the largest affiliate to the Labour party. That makes it a power player in the party’s internal politics, although their reach and influence is often overstated. It is the GMB, a trade union from the party’s centre, which has dominated parliamentary selections so far in this parliament. “It’s easier for people who’ve met Lisa Johnson [the GMB’s political officer in charge of selection] once in the pub to get selected than it is for Len to get his favourites in,” jokes one trade union official.

That McCluskey is going now and not in 2018 is itself the result of events beyond his control. Assistant general secretary Steve Turner, long spoken of as McCluskey’s chosen successor, is judged not to have  the credibility with Unite’s left flank to win. McCluskey, who is 66, had been trying to overturn a rule barring him from standing again in 2018 due to his age. However, that plan has been mothballed after it became apparent that he does not have the necessary votes among the executive committee.

McCluskey has been dogged by the widespread perception – one that Unite’s press officers strongly deny – that his preference in the 2015 Labour leadership election was Andy Burnham, not Jeremy Corbyn. (In the end, Unite backed Corbyn.)  That matters because in 2013, McCluskey’s strongest opposition came from the left, in the shape of Jerry Hicks, a member of the Respect party who has tried for the top job three times. Since then, McCluskey has been a vocal supporter of Corbyn’s leadership and Unite underwrote much of the Islington MP's second leadership bid. But the perception that he is a fairweather friend of the Corbyn project still lingers in some circles.

However, McCluskey is unlikely to face a well-organised challenge from the left, which would potentially be fatal. 

Who might face him? Hicks is believed to be highly unlikely to mount a fourth bid for the job, while Sharon Graham, the director of organising, is “ambitious but will sit this one out”, say insiders. It is expected that someone from Unite Scotland will likely make a bid. The great hope for Labour’s Corbynsceptics is Gerard Coyne, the regional secretary in the west Midlands. Allies of McCluskey hoped he could be bought off with a parliamentary seat, but he is now all-but-certain to challenge McCluskey for the post.

McCluskey is well-prepared for his bid. Jennie Formby, a close aide and former political director, now serves as regional secretary in the South-East, in preparation for the crucial task of getting the vote out for her boss. He starts as the frontrunner, albeit a vulnerable one. Coyne, for his part, has the advantage of coming from the West Midlands, where the old Labour right – once the backbone of Amicus and its predecessor unions, now merged into Unite – is still strong and relatively well-organised.

But here's the question. Has McCluskey's friendliness with the Corbynite left alienated his members with high-paying industrial jobs, who are not enamoured with the current Labour leader? McCluskey’s allies hope that he has done enough in defending Labour’s policy commitment to Trident to offset his support for Corbyn, who is opposed to the nuclear deterrent. His opponents believe they can successfully link him to the Labour leadership’s opposition to fracking, pharmaceuticals and defence, all of which are industries whose members are represented by Unite.

This election matters within the Labour party because Unite has multiples votes on its ruling national executive committee, and on the conference floor. It is also keen to put forward Unite-backed parliamentary candidates. So whether Len McCluskey serves another term could change the direction of British politics. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.