Labour must get back to its principles on Lords reform

There is a real danger political infighting around Lords reform may derail the process entirely, writes Katie Ghose, chief exec of the Electoral Reform Society.

The House of Lords: In urgent need of reform

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Katie Ghose is the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

There is a real danger political infighting around Lords reform may derail the process entirely.

House-of-Lords-PortcullisAt this crucial juncture, before the bill begins its journey through parliament, only Labour can play the vital role of standing up for reform and championing the rights and wishes of British voters.

A YouGov poll (xls) published today found 69% of people support an elected second chamber and in fact between 54-82% of the public have supported an elected upper house since 2000.

Despite this public support and the fact MPs from all three main parties were elected on manifesto commitments to progress Lords reform, an unholy alliance of peers and MPs is emerging in support of the status quo, often for tactical rather than principled reasons.

Labour included a referendum promise in its manifesto and is understandably sticking by this, but while a Labour majority government with Liberal Democrats joining the Yes side could comfortably commit to a public ballot, a coalition government with Conservative rebels running amok is an entirely different prospect.

Labour supporters who genuinely believe in Lords reform should be wary of the referendum question overtaking all others and being abused by those who want reform kicked into the long grass.


See also:

A coalition at war over Lords reform 23 Apr 2012

Tories threaten to ignore their mandate on Lords reform 20 Apr 2012

Lords big beasts turn up the heat on reform 27 Jun 2011


In this quagmire Labour has every opportunity to be the voters’ voice and point out the unarguable; that if you hold the power to help decide how Britain is run you should be elected by us, the British public.

Not being allowed to elect our politicians is an absurd anachronism impossible to explain to anyone outside the UK, and especially to new or developing democracies for whom the establishment of elected representatives is fundamental.

The government line will remain firm but unconvincing given the unseemly fighting within and between coalition partners.

David Cameron will support reform in the full knowledge his foot soldiers will vigorously oppose it every step of the way; Nick Clegg will privately reassure activists this is a no break deal and in public continue to hold the line that ‘we have more important things to do’.

Labour can take a clear and principled stance, continuing to explain why the chamber should be elected and how this will enhance its democratic role and the collective strength of both houses of our Parliament.

In opposition Labour can expose myths about expertise or independence by pointing out being elected does not conflict with either of these qualities.

It can point to the positives; the opportunity for a reformed chamber to look and feel far more like modern Britain, and it can do what the committee was supposed to have been doing and the current Lords seems unable to do; it can provide objective scrutiny and ensure the bill that emerges is the right bill for British democracy.

This work should come naturally to the party as it is Labour who over decades has consistently promoted Lords reform, engaged constructively with the numerous cross-party processes and achieved critical steps towards the abolition of hereditary peers. It is time now for the Labour Party to pull together to do what it knows needs to be done.


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  • Anonymous

    Second houses are not fully elected in many countries.

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  • Anonymous

    To be honest, I do not feel strongly about an elected second chamber. I do not have a problem with Lords being appointed in proprtion to votes in a General Election plus crossbench experts. The important issue is still PR for the Commons, which might be even less likely if the second chamber is elected by PR.

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  • Mr. Sensible

    Katie, I’m afraid supporters of an elected upper house are just plain misguided. If we were to do that, then the fear is that we would end up with a carbon copy of the House of Commons, and legislative scrutiny would be much the poorer to have 2 of those.

  • Paul Barker

    If this is the level of political understanding shown by the ERS no wonder they made such a mess of the Yes to AV campaign. Labour have never had much interest in either reform or democracy, except if they think it will give them more power. The idea labour can actually lead this struggle is just silly, the best supporters of reform can hope for is that most labour MPs vote in favour of the coalition proposols or at least abstain. The call for a referendum is a tactic to block reform with no legitimacy simply because it was in labours manifesto, labour lost.

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  • Dave


    It initially seems perverse, but an unelected second chamber is probably a lot better for democracy – at least if Lords are appointed by elected officials, rather than inherited (which is the case nowadays).

    I certainly don’t want two chambers full of members who are more concerned with getting re-elected than with voting according to their beliefs or consciences.

    The primary chamber should of course be fully elected, delivering the will of the people – but it’s useful to have a second chamber full of experienced politicians who can examine and changes bills without worrying about being unpopular or getting voted out.

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  • Albert Spangler

    Astounding. We have commentators arguing for the currently appointed house of lords and against an elected house of lords, because we don’t think that the the current elected house is good enough, even though that same elected house appoints the house of lords!

    We have numerous problems with our system with ignores results, marginalizes voters and allow vested interests to wield disproportionate power, as well as constant misinformation and apathy amongst voters. Yet any tiny incremental change towards a fairer system is consistently opposed. Why? How can people possibly say that this current system leaves voters feeling like participating in government and elections is worthwhile? That we feel even remotely represented and that politics works for our interests?

    The apparent uniformity of comments here belies the utter depressing acceptance of the status quo, the status quo being the quiet eroding of democratic process while claiming to uphold it.

  • JC

    Why not use the same model as Jury Service to select a senate to review legislation. It would have many benefits.
    No secure retirement home for failed politicians and their friends and advisers
    No more “cash for honours”
    A parliament that fully represents the people
    A parliament that has no axe to grind and would vote as it saw fit, not on party lines.

    If you agree, go to and add your signature.

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  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, referendums are only good when they might let YOU bypass parliament, rather than the other way around. Gotta give that tool of Tyrants and Demagogues a good workout in your favour!

    Nice work using it to crush ACTUAL reform of voting (i.e. PR). But the issue won’t go away.

  • Test

    “Not being allowed to elect our politicians is an absurd anachronism impossible to explain to anyone outside the UK, and especially to new or developing democracies for whom the establishment of elected representatives is fundamental.”

    It’s very easily explicable. The Lords acts as a break on the democratic chamber and forces them to think, rather than legislate for the sake of it. It’s a revising chamber, not a strict legislative body in the manner of the American (or indeed the Australian) Senate. As such it ought to be permanently small-c conservative to head off rash legislative experiments emanating from the other place. A replica of the Commons cannot do this.

    Also, we have had the Lords as the upper chamber for 800 years. Are you really telling me that your foreign interlocutors cannot understand that in Britain we have a respect for traditions, and a wariness for fleeting one-party majorities (or two-party majorities for the Coalition) deciding they know it all, ripping up an ancient institution by its roots, and telling everyone that’s much better than what went before for centuries?

  • Test

    The upper house is not appointed by the lower house but, in fact, by the Prime Minister. Until Blair buggered about with it (another fleeting politician who thought he knew it all and would rip up an ancient institution because some of his supporters didn’t like it) most of the members of the Lords were not appointed by Prime Ministers or anyone else at all.

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