Keir Starmer: I will abolish House of Lords to ‘restore trust in politics’

Exclusive: Labour leader plans a new elected chamber after accusing successive Tory governments of handing peerages to ‘lackeys and donors’

Keir Starmer will abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a new elected chamber as part of plans to “restore trust in politics”, the Observer understands.

In a sweeping constitutional overhaul, the Labour leader has told the party’s peers that he wants to strip politicians of the power to make appointments to the Lords as part of the first-term programme of a Labour government. Starmer said that the public’s faith in the political system had been undermined by successive Tory leaders handing peerages to “lackeys and donors”.

It is understood that Labour will hold a consultation on the composition and size of a new chamber as well as immediate reforms to the current appointments process. Final proposals will be included in the party’s next election manifesto.

It comes after a series of rows over peerages. Boris Johnson made a number of controversial appointments, including his friend Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the Evening Standard. He is expected to appoint political allies and junior aides as part of a forthcoming list.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss is also said to be planning a resignation list of new peers despite a disastrous leadership that lasted just seven weeks.

In a meeting last week, Starmer told Labour peers that there was now strong support for reform of the Lords, both across party lines and among the public. He outlined “some very clear principles” for reform, including that any new chamber should be elected by voters rather than appointed by politicians.

“I want to be clear that we do need to restore the trust of the public in every part of the United Kingdom in our system of government,” he said. “House of Lords reform is just one part of that … People have lost faith in the ability of politicians and politics to bring about change – that is why, as well as fixing our economy, we need to fix our politics.”

He added that it should be “truly representative” of the UK’s nations and regions, meaning it should have a clear role in safeguarding devolution. However, he also said that his proposals would ensure it should not replace any of the functions of the House of Commons, remaining a second chamber charged with amending and scrutinising legislation. The Commons would retain exclusive powers over the public finances and the formation of governments.

The proposals will also set out much stronger devolved powers, as part of a review of Britain’s constitutional arrangements overseen by Gordon Brown, the former prime minister.

Starmer told party peers on Wednesday that he regarded reforming the Lords as a critical part of his agenda aimed at “promoting inclusive growth and restoring trust in politics”. While he said that they would continue to play a “vital role” in the campaign to win the next election, reform was needed to show the public that Labour would provide a fresh start after a series of Tory scandals.

He pointed to Johnson’s recent use of his power to appoint peers as showing the need for reform. He said Johnson’s plans to reward “lackeys and donors” made him the latest in a long line of Tory prime ministers who have played party politics with the Lords and ridden roughshod over the appointments system: “We should be rebuilding trust in politics, but this can’t just be an article of faith – we need to show how we will do things differently. Reforming our second chamber has to be a part of that.”

Johnson has recently handed a peerage to Michael Hintze, a leading Tory donor, and previously awarded one to Lebedev. He is now said to be planning to hand more to the ultra-loyal MPs Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, and Nigel Adams, a former Cabinet Office minister and longtime supporter.

Johnson’s resignation honours list, which has not yet been announced, is also said to include his advisers Ross Kempsell, 30, and Charlotte Owen, a former assistant to Johnson believed to be in her late 20s.

Starmer had pledged to abolish the Lords as part of his leadership campaign, and to “replace it with an elected chamber of regions and nations”. Doubts were later raised about his commitment to the promise after he abandoned other elements of his leadership pitch. However, it is understood he now sees reform of the Lords as necessary to demonstrate that Labour would represent a decisive change from the Conservatives.

Starmer’s comments suggest that he is backing many of the ideas drawn up by Brown’s review. It is understood to support replacing the Lords with an upper house of nations and regions. It is also said to have backed a new round of devolution, including handing new economic and taxation powers to new independent councils of the nations and for England. Brown wants local mayors to have more power over education, transport and research funding.

During the meeting with peers, Starmer also made clear that he wanted to reposition Labour as “pro-business, pro-growth and can offer Britain a bright future”, adding: “We will be out there showing the public that there is a different way to this failed Tory economics … Britain has so much potential. Labour will harness it so we can lead the world again.

Labour has already announced that Starmer backs banning MPs from carrying out paid consultancy work as a way of improving ethical standards. He would also replace the ministerial code with an updated code of conduct. The party’s plans appear to include an entirely elected second chamber, but the details of the reforms have not yet been agreed.

The last big attempt to reform the Lords came under the coalition government led by David Cameron. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, eventually had to abandon the plans in the wake of a humiliating Tory rebellion. His proposals would have seen 80% of peers elected and the total number of members cut to 450.

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