In an article on the state of the franchise in 1864, Walter Bagehot wrote that we have to make a choice “between anomaly and democracy”. One of the remaining anomalies of the British constitution is the House of Lords, in which people who have served their time or paid their political subs are allowed to amuse themselves with puffed-up titles. It is an institution that almost everyone agrees needs to change but somehow stays much the same.
There has been a flurry of mischief this week about Keir Starmer abandoning one of the ten pledges he made during his campaign to be leader of the Labour Party. In fact, Starmer has done no such thing. The campaign pledge was, to be precise, “Abolish the House of Lords – replace it with an elected chamber of regions and nations”. That has been Labour Party policy for a long time. Indeed, Starmer insisted repeatedly that there will have to be change in the Lords so his position is unchanged. Labour’s precise policy awaits the commission on the constitution that Gordon Brown is leading. But for the moment and, for all the confected newspaper talk, there is nothing to see here.
Which is a shame because abolition of the House of Lords really is a good idea. A unicameral state – abolition and no replacement – was one of the policies that Labour got right in its infamous suicidal manifesto of 1983. There is a perfectly good case that the accountability and scrutiny functions of the House of Lords could be parcelled up to super-charged committees of the Commons and specially appointed commissions of temporary experts. The Lords is hardly the pinnacle of accountability as it stands.
Yet the proposal for a unicameral state illustrates the problem with reform of the Lords. It has nothing like the required number of advocates. At any given moment it is likely that all three of the main parties will be, in principle, committed to reform in general, but they will not be able to agree on any reform in particular. This issue creates strange blocking alliances such as the notorious coalition in 1968 between Michael Foot, who wanted to abolish the whole silly shooting match, and Enoch Powell, who wanted the world to stand still. The same alliance of radicals who want the Earth and conservatives who want nothing would be likely to scupper any reform that is mooted today.
And there are manifold options for change, some of which, as the political scientist Meg Russell pointed out in The Contemporary House of Lords, have been discussed for hundreds of years. There could be a chamber of the nations and regions, which is current Labour Party policy. This is the standard second chamber arrangement of federal states, whether directly elected in Australia and the United States, indirectly elected in India, appointed centrally in Canada or drawn from subnational governments in Germany. Nick Clegg tried and failed to introduce elections to multi-member constituencies in 2012. A retirement age could be introduced or the political parties could be prevailed upon to find more democratic means of bringing forward their candidates. The UK government recently floated the idea that the House of Lords might move to York. Yet, of the world’s 79 bicameral parliaments, all but one – Cote d’Ivoire – have their two chambers in the same city.
Agreement on any one of these options seems unlikely. It’s no wonder that the historian Peter Hennessy, the modern Bagehot, has called Lords reform “the Bermuda Triangle of British politics”. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. There is, in fact, a scheme which is simple to understand, easy to administer and which preserves the virtues said to be embodied by the current second chamber. The person to whom we must look is – and it seems obvious when you say it – Billy Bragg, who has devised a scheme for reform of the Lords that ought to commend itself to Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission.
The Bragg plan is disarmingly simple. At a general election we would all cast our vote, exactly as we do now, for an MP in a constituency. The difference is that this vote will also count towards the Lords. The votes would be added up across the nation and each party given a share of seats in the second chamber in strict proportion to the electoral support it won. There is no need for a separate election, no expensive campaign or newly minted regional apparatus.
A second chamber elected by a proportionate electoral system will ensure that the Lords is a check on the Commons. The Bragg scheme also solves the problem of composition. Conservative-inclined souls often say that the Lords is full of experience and expertise that would be lost if the current institution were upset. Under this scheme the parties can nominate whoever they choose, as they do now. And there is even a twist that would ensure the presence of cross-benchers. If turnout were 65 per cent, 35 per cent of the places in the Lords could be awarded to peers of no party affiliation. All those people who cannot be bothered to vote would be inadvertently helping to ensure that Baroness Boothroyd would remain in the Upper Chamber.
Billy Bragg’s latest album is called The Million Things That Never Happened. Though he doesn’t mention it on the album, we can include in that his scheme, indeed any scheme, for reform of the House of Lords. But the Lords remains an anomaly, and this scheme, which solves some of the problems while minimising disruption, is one thing that just might happen.