Don’t bet on Jeremy Corbyn succeeding in abolishing the House of Lords

Substantive Lords reform is difficult and time-consuming – even for a government with a large majority. The upper chamber's progressive majority may prove the least worst option.

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It's not often that Jeremy Corbyn and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre find themselves on the same side of an argument. But today the Labour leader's spokesman confirmed that both are gunning for the House of Lords.

After it was revealed that the three new peers appointed to the upper house by Labour this week have been asked to vote for its abolition, Corbyn's spokesman confirmed that the party is committed to replacing the Lords with a fully elected chamber. 

The comments go substantially further than the party's 2017 manifesto, which said Labour believed the Lords should be fully elected but stopped short of committing to abolition.

Speaking after prime minister's questions, Corbyn's spokesman said:

"Jeremy has made clear we want to see the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with an elected second chamber and that is well past overdue. It's a basic democratic reform, it must take place.

"It's absurd that we still have this undemocratic anachronism in the 21st century and when Labour is elected we will carry through that pledge.

"The commitment is clear, and by the way, anyone who is appointed to the House of Lords under the existing rules by the Labour party is required to support that.

"We're a democratic party and we support a democratic constitution. This is a long overdue reform. It's extremely hard to argue against and people struggle to do so.

"It's clearly a democratic necessity, Labour has clear positions on these issues and if we're continuing to participate in the House of Lords, then those people who are brought into the House of Lords by the Labour party need to support those clear democratic changes."

Would it work? It's not impossible, though it is worth remembering  that only two significant reforms to the Lords have been achieved in the past 20 years: Labour's abolition of all but 92 of the hereditary peers in 1999, and the 2014 reforms passed by the coalition, which allowed peers to resign or retire. The remaining hereditary peers have not been abolished, in spite of proposals by the last Labour government. Nick Clegg's plans for an 80 per cent elected house – which he claimed were a key plank of the Lib Dems' coalition agreement with the Conservatives – were torpedoed by Tory rebels in 2012. 

In short: Lords reform is messy, time-consuming and ultimately easy to put on ice when faced with other, more pressing priorities. The lesson of the last Labour government is that even if Corbyn wins a majority, then it will prove difficult. In 2007, a majority of the Commons backed a wholly elected house and nothing happened. 

The job will be even trickier for a minority government, even if Brexit – and the desire among some Tories for a reprisal purge of Europhile peers – shifts the numbers in favour of reform. 

That Lords reform has become a cause celebre for Brexiteers raises another question: should Labour bother? There is a clear moral case for doing so but the politics are less clear-cut. In the medium term, the Tories will never command a majority in the Lords – and governments since 2015 have experienced a string of defeats at the hands of Labour and Lib Dem peers, demonstrating the benefit of this aged institution to the progressive cause. 

Though the radical left, especially smaller parties, are excited by the opportunities an upper chamber elected by proportional representation would offer, the heavily-insulated majority for progressive politics in the upper chamber isn't something to be given up lightly, especially should Labour win an unstable majority or govern as a minority. It may well prove the least worst option should Lords reform prove too low on the party's long list of radical priorities to implement. Add to this the lack of broad consensus over just what shape a wholly-elected upper chamber would take, and history shows Corbyn faces an uphill struggle.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.