The Independent View: Groundhog Day in the Lords?

Paul Tyler’s recent letter to the Guardian about reforming the House of Lords raises at least two meta questions about British politics.

He suggests Keir Starmer revives the 2012 Lib Dem legislation but before we do that should ask why did that initiative fail and why should things be different in 2024.

The truth is it, it failed for the same reasons that every previous attempt failed, starting in 1911 but most conspicuously in 1999 when a cohort of counts and their ilk managed to stay on in the second chamber.

Britain is very good at self-sabotage, at not learning from its previous mistakes. This is because its guiding constitutional principle is tradition, which is both infallible and a way of predicting the future.

There are 18 reasons/obstacles (maybe more) why reform failed in the past. If Starmer’s team is serious, it will have to dismantle these obstacles first.

There is not space to explain all the hobbles on Lords reform but I will give you three of them.

As soon as anyone progressive announces that they really are going to finish off the Lords, no ifs and buts, a stock objection will be made: there are more urgent priorities to deal with. The economy, stupid. The next government will inherit a crises in living standards; the NHS and the environment. These will take up all its time and money.

Related to this is a second objection: it is never a good time for constitutional reform which is widely seen as both unnecessary – if it ain’t broke you can’t fix it: unbelievably the Lords in its present form has its apologists – or risky. Throw out umpteen centuries of trial and error and there is a good chance that you’ll make things even worse.

Thirdly, the interests of a party in Opposition are very different to the those of a party in government. Win an election and you go from outsider to insider. The system is yours for a while; you can do what you want.  You lose interest in changing even the tiniest aspect of the system that has put you where you are. Why would you want to share or devolve power that you have just won unfairly and unsquarely?

Nothing is going to change unless we address the roots of the problem and that requires two conditions to be met. One is that we agree on the primary importance of constitutional reform. We have to get clear that an unjust, inefficient, nepotistic system is never going to deliver levelling up, a healthy environment, a functioning health service and all the rest.

The other condition is that we are able to talk about this, which is not as easy as might think. Britain manages not to have national debates. This explains the result of the referendum 2016 and the election of 2019.

Consider this:  I read a letter in the Guardian making a vital point about a burning issue. The editors rarely publish a response to a response and they certainly don’t want a long running exchange to develop that side-lines their columnists. The debate has to move to smaller forums where the energy dissipates. Like minded thinkers disperse rather than coalesce in a movement. A vast amount of good political ideas goes untapped and unexpressed; there is barely any interactivity and the testing of proposals.

Everything stays stuck, exactly where it was. The media acts the innocent. Professors of great universities stay shtum. Britain carries on regardless. Will nothing ever change for the better?

There are 92 human beings who could do something to help. If any of the hereditary members of the House of Lords are reading this, perhaps they would like to join me in using their influence to promote a simple but revolutionary constitutional Act that should attract cross party support. The Principles of the British Constitution Bill will give every British citizen the permanent and inalienable right to cast a vote of equal impact to every other vote in an election. Anyone who calls him or herself a democrat should have no problem signing up to this.

When that bill is passed into law, perhaps the members of the Hybrid House of Lords, whether serving a genealogical or life sentence, will have the moral, democratic decency to abolish themselves and spare us having to go through the rest of the 18 obstacles.

* Nick Inman is a professional journalist.

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4 Comments

  • Labour have made these proposals in an attempt to throw a constitutional bone to their membership ( 80%+ ), unions, and supporters who are desperate to get real PR voting installed in the UK.

    Labour’s dinosaurs oppose PR so that around 1/3 -1/4 of General Elections give them unwarranted monopoly power to pay with, after which virtually every policy is reversed during yet another 4 terms of unwarranted Tory monopoly power.

  • Labour’s plans for the HoL are a foolish concoction dreamt up by Gordon Brown as centralisers idea for devolution.

    People around the country are already nominally represented in Westminster through their MP’s, so why double that by putting their regions or nations next door inside the bubble, largely irrelevant and distant from the people?

    Regions of England should have strong elected bodies IN THEIR OWN REGIONS with borrowing, taxing and law making powers, much as federal bodies in many other countries and unlike the UK, they work.

    The devolved national parliaments such be given maximum powers apart from defence, foreign affairs, strategic issues and overall finances. Government needs to be brought closer to people so they engage with it and understand it.

  • Helen Dudden 1st Dec '22 - 8:01am

    As the country drifts from one crisis to another I feel to have changes in the House of Lords is an important issue. Should the House of Lords be reserved as a form of reward for services to a political body or something more.
    At present the political system feels out of touch with reality and the actual running of services and the voting public. The subject of subsidised meals and alcohol is one that needs addressing.
    The Labour Party, needs to rethink it’s part in the political scene, I did meet a few of them during my time on the subject of International Child Abduction and the problems it had. Also, I met a Minister for one EU Country that I have great respect for. On my visit to Brussels I met with contacts on the subject, and then a Minister from that country.
    This, did just highlight how important it is working together to solve major issues.

  • Steve Trevethan 1st Dec '22 - 8:30am

    With some 30% of our children chronically/permanently hungry, how can our version of “democracy” be classified as other than a zombie democracy?

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