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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses