Lords reform is an opportunity for Labour, not an obstacle

Labour can again be the party of transformative constitutional reform, writes Dan Sharp.

Labour can again be the party of transformative constitutional reform, writes Dan Sharp

The upcoming Scottish independence referendum has placed the UK’s constitution in the spotlight. If Scotland votes No in September, we should seize this opportunity to re-examine our country’s structures of government, tie up the odd ends left by asymmetrical devolution and enhance the legitimacy of central government.

As deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg has had special responsibility for political and constitutional reform. His record speaks for itself: the lost AV referendum, the abandoned boundary changes, the Lobbying Act that will curtail free speech and House of Lords reform kicked into the long grass.

Contrast this to Labour’s record following its 1997 electoral win: independence for the Bank of England; legislative devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following referenda; a directly elected mayor and assembly for London; proportional representation for European and devolved elections; the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act; the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords and the creation of a Lords Speaker; reform of party financing; and the establishment of a Supreme Court.

Unlike the members of some other parties, most in Labour do not enter politics to tweak with the structures of government; but Labour has been – and can again be – the party of transformative constitutional reform. As a party of the progressive left, our politics are premised on a need for change.

Should Scotland vote to remain within the UK later this year and Labour then go on to win the 2015 General Election, we will be confronted with serious questions about the future of the UK’s constitution.

The Scottish Labour Party has already published its plans for the further devolution of powers to Holyrood while the Silk Commission in Wales has called for further devolution there too. But in addition to looking at what can be devolved, we should be looking at how the nations and regions of the UK can feed back into the centre.

One possible step would be to complete the project started in 1997: reforming the House of Lords. As well as being a goal in itself, reforming the Lords could allow us to tie up the loose ends left by asymmetrical devolution whilst also enhancing representation for English counties in the absence of an English Parliament or regional assemblies.

While it is easy to criticise the current setup in the Upper House, it does have some merit. Members are appointed – from the professions, business, media, etc – and are able to draw upon their backgrounds to provide in-depth scrutiny of legislation and government policy, thus fulfilling their role as Parliament’s revising chamber.

As members are appointed they fulfil this role without consideration for their political careers. Studies have shown, for example, that while the membership turnover of some Commons’ committees is high, this is not the case in the Lords – where members also often have far greater expertise. Peculiarly, under current arrangements, the Lords’ USP is precisely that it is unelected.

With no term limits and over 800 members, however, there can be no doubt that the Lords has become bloated. The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that under the status quo up to three quarters of our national lawmakers may be unelected by the end of the next Parliament. Prior to Labour removing all but 92 of the hereditary Peers through the House of Lords Act 1999, reforms focused on limiting the chamber’s powers – through the Parliament Acts – rather than altering its composition.

All three major parties supported at least a partly elected chamber in their 2010 manifestos, but elections in and of themselves would not resolve current tensions. Indeed they may exacerbate them: democratising the Lords would arguably undermine the political supremacy of the Commons and therefore lead to further constitutional wrangling.

Rather than being appointed – or elected for single terms as Nick Clegg proposed – members of the Lords could be elected from geographic regions across the UK using a system of proportional representation. This could operate in a similar way to the Additional Member System in Scotland, Wales and London; two types of parliamentarian, each with a different type of mandate.

As a recent debate in the Commons on the ‘Future of Scotland and North East England post-2014’ illustrated, the interests of different regions within the UK are not confined by national borders. Electing the Lords in this way would give the regions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a voice at the centre of our parliamentary democracy.

Unlike the SNP’s campaign for independence, this constitutional reform would not draw dividing lines and build barriers but rather include and bring together.

This may seem radical but Labour is a social democratic party and the UK’s constitution is unwritten; Lords reform is an opportunity not an obstacle. Constitutional change may not be our raison d’être but reform is in our DNA.

Dan Sharp is a Labour Party member and works in Westminster as an MP’s researcher

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7 Responses to “Lords reform is an opportunity for Labour, not an obstacle”

  1. swatnan

    This issue is more important than Fox Hunting and yet its been allowed to slide. Get rid of all Hereditaries and the Bishops. Reform; introduce a Senate and Peoples Peers and stop the PMs perogative to appoint peers. And agree that PR should apply to Westminster Regional and Disrict Elections.

  2. uglyfatbloke

    Sensible propositions, but don’t hold your breath.

  3. Norfolk29

    I agree with the regional proposal but how will we get different sectors of the economy and society represented if we allow professional politicians to stand for election. The US Senate is a case in point. We need Retired MP’s, Business, Religion, Trade Unions, Armed Forces, etc. represented in proportion to their importance to the country as a whole. The best way would be for these proportions to be determined by a separate body and the various represented bodies appointed by the political parties in proportion to the share of the vote they obtained at the General Election. Thus, if we determine that the body be limited to 100 members and 6% will represent religion, and 20% will represent business, etc. the political parties would have a list of representatives in each category, already elected by party members, to fill those posts. What we don’t want is the PM (Cameron) appointing 110 of his cronies to the Lords in the first year he is PM, as has happened in this parliament.

  4. uglyfatbloke

    Trouble with retired MPs is so many of them have already done enough harm and thee should be no place in the legislature for religion. Also, if parties get to nominate lists it’ll still be a refuge for failed or useless MPs. Would we actually need an upper chamber at all if we had democratic elections instead of the odious FPTP?

  5. treborc1

    It’s easy to give local area like Wales independence when you hold the purse stings, anything Wales or Scotland or NI do which England does not like or agree with all you do is cut the funding, as they did with Wales.

    Sorry the Welsh Assembly is a bigger local council actually not the Government of Wales.

  6. keeshond

    Over 100 Labour MPs opposed the AV system for electing MPs. Leading Labour ‘No’ campaigner, Joan Ryan, told so many lies about the consequences of changing the First Past The Post voting system that I cannot allow this researcher’s drivel to go unchallenged. Suffice to say that his paymasters must have whooped for joy when Nick Clegg abandoned the proposed constituency boundary changes which would potentially guarantee the Tories more than 20 extra seats in the House of Commons. I’m neither a LibDem nor a Conservative voter, but please don’t knock him for that helping hand he gave your party.

  7. uglyfatbloke

    I think we are at cross purposes here – or possibly you were responding to a different post? My point is that FPTP is ethically unsupportable and that the same goes for parties having the power to appoint members of the lords.

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