Keir Starmer has been warned by Labour peers that he risks getting bogged down in a “constitutional quagmire” that will prevent him completing other urgent domestic reforms if he pushes ahead with plans to scrap the House of Lords in the first term of a Labour government.
Several senior Labour figures in the Lords have privately questioned the Labour leader’s commitment to drive through proposals to replace the Lords with an elected second chamber in his first term, warning that he could use up huge amounts of “political capital” on an issue that few voters mention on the doorstep.
The Observer revealed a fortnight ago that Starmer had told peers he wanted to move to an elected second chamber and strip politicians of the power to make appointments to the Lords, as part of sweeping first-term changes aimed at restoring voters’ faith in politics. This was confirmed by party officials.
But the issue has caused disquiet in the party and led some to urge caution. Last night, aides to Starmer denied that there were tensions between Starmer and the former party leader Gordon Brown, who will on Monday publish a review of the constitution that he hopes will be adopted in large part by the party.
Brown’s report will recommend moving to an elected second chamber to help restore faith in the political system. It will also include plans for radical devolution of powers to the regions in “the biggest transfer of power out of Westminster ever”. There will also be plans to restore faith in politics through a new system to govern ethics.
But some at high levels of the party have cautioned against a manifesto commitment to drive through Lords reform as soon as a Labour comes to power, were it to win the next general election. Previous attempts to reform the Lords, such as in the early years of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government, have ended in failure and deadlock.
One Labour peer with influence said: “I would not say it is a backlash, more that he has been made aware of the reality that he could use up a lot of political capital at the expense of other domestic reforms if he goes too fast on this.”
Another peer said: “It sounds a good idea but, in the past, attempts to reform the Lords have led into a political quagmire.”
In an article for this weekend’s Observer, Starmer, while not mentioning the House of Lords, promises to pursue a wide range of reforms to restore trust in politics and politicians. He writes: “Tomorrow, we will begin to set out exactly how the next Labour government will meet that challenge.
“The proposals published by Gordon Brown and the Commission on the UK’s Future will set the path for the biggest ever transfer of control from Westminster back to the British people. It means that at the next election, Labour will stand on a promise of new powers for towns, cities, regions and nations to reignite our economy, while scrapping unaccountable ones in Westminster to restore trust in our politics.
“This is a matter of personal conviction for me. I have always believed that the people best placed to decide what works in Stirling, Sunderland or Swansea are the people there. If we expect these places to drive growth we must first hand them the keys. But as well as bringing people closer to decision making, I want to change the very idea of who our politics serves. The way this Tory government keeps blithely putting up taxes, while endlessly pearl clutching over the prospect of oil companies or non-doms or Eton College paying their fair share leaves working people with one sense: that Britain is being run for someone, but that it isn’t them. That will change.”