The most telling fact about the House of Lords is that not one living prime minister has deigned to darken its door. They know too much of its deals, kickbacks and cronyism to be reminded of them round every corner. Yes, there are impressive peers, but they are captives of a roughly 800-member club that has become the laughing stock of British democracy. Revelations such as those recently in the Guardian about the Conservative peer Michelle Mone have become all too common.
Once again reform is in the air – this time from a former prime minister, Gordon Brown, advising a probable future one, Keir Starmer. Brown is eager for a new chamber to level up the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. Starmer, who recently proposed his controversial colleague Tom Watson for a peerage, is reportedly showing signs of hesitancy. The raw fact is that Lords membership is a potent loyalty weapon in any party leader’s pocket.
Reforming the Lords was the declared intention of Tony Blair and David Cameron. Both failed to convert it into to a truly democratic body, while continuing to “honour” their cronies. In his speech in Leeds on the constitution on Monday, Starmer promised “the biggest ever transfer of power” from Westminster to local and regional government, with additional devolution for Edinburgh and Cardiff. This too has a familiar ring. Blair promised elected mayors and Cameron “metro mayors”, but neither delivered for them effective devolution or, in Cameron’s case, sensible boundaries. Neither stemmed the tide of Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Britain remains hyper-centralised.
This area of the constitution at least matters. Few feel the same about the House of Lords. Hence the murmurings in the lobby by influential peers that Starmer should not waste “political capital” on change . This is how the debate always dissolves, into a top-down search not for a new purpose but for a membership to give the existing chamber legitimacy. Eight-hundred members with an average age of 71 is absurd.
Defenders of the Lords say it brings the wisdom of experience to vet legislation passing through parliament, while adding depth to public debate. But the legislative function can be met by a much-needed broadening of Commons committee stages. These should bring in expert witnesses and hold formal public hearings. The second-debating purpose is certainly of value, but the nation’s voice should not be obscured by the language of aristocracy in a plush retirement home in the metropolis.
Brown is right. The prime purpose of a second chamber should be, as it is in almost every parliament abroad, to reflect the diverse union that comprises most nation states. This is especially urgent in a union which, in Britain’s case, remains almost terminally unstable. But that virtue is undermined by Brown’s belief that the chamber should be directly elected. This would clearly challenge the democratic standing of the Commons. Worse, it would strengthen the patronage base of the big parties and their leaders, precisely what afflicts the present Lords. Political parties must lose ownership of the second chamber.
It is time for the Lords to be replaced by a council of the people. This would be formed of indirectly elected leaders of the nations, counties and cities, as well as representatives of local interests – industrial, professional, cultural and academic. Its function would be deliberative, not legislative. It could be peripatetic, meeting nationwide. Its motions might require a formal Commons response. At the very least, such a senate would offer parliament a refreshing alternative voice and stand much to Starmer’s credit.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist