The UK's Labour party wants to scrap the House of Lords – but then what?

Agreeing that it's idiotic is easy. The difficulty is in reaching a consensus on what should replace it

The UK royal family attends the state opening of Parliament in the House of Lords chamber in May. AFP
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The UK House of Lords may at last be doomed. It is probably the most bizarre legislative chamber in any democracy in the modern world. Dating back to the 14th century, the Lords is the upper house of the British parliament and is part-hereditary, part-filled with Church of England bishops and other worthy folk, and also a retirement home for ageing party donors, failed or superannuated politicians and an assortment of prime ministers’ cronies and favourites.

By 1999, the House of Lords had expanded so much with new “Life Peers” that there were 1,273 members. The House of Lords Act of that same year expelled more than 600 of them, but the numbers keep creeping up. There is no upper limit. In theory, it could expand exponentially forever. A parliamentary committee in 2011 recommended capping the number of peers at 300. A decade later, the proposed cap was 600. There are now more than 800 Lords and Ladies and some 200 or so are very hard working, conscientious and talented. The rest, not so much.

Back in 2007, the House of Commons finally voted to make the entire House of Lords an elected second chamber. The Lords – predictably – disagreed. By September 2021, three quarters of the British public backed scrapping or overhauling the House of Lords. The average age of peers is 71, several years beyond the age of eligibility for a state retirement pension.

It is probably the most bizarre legislative chamber in any democracy in the modern world

In 2020, then prime minister Boris Johnson added to the list of new Lords and Ladies with his own choices including an ageing cricketer, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who became a leading Brexit supporter and Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former senior KGB officer and Russian oligarch. This crew of oddities now forms part of the legislative branch of British democracy.

Mr Johnson’s more recent “resignation honours” mean he can create even more permanent members of the British legislature. Even Liz Truss, after just seven weeks as prime minister, can appoint new members of the Lords who, until the end of their lives, may guide British democracy in what is, simply, a ludicrous system. In the case of Mr Johnson’s choices, it is worth bearing in mind they were appointed at the whim of a disgraced prime minister who, according to YouGov polling was at the time trusted by only 11 per cent of the population and distrusted by 75 per cent.

The Electoral Reform Society tried to explain the “modernisation” of the House of Lords at the end of last century. Its account is so incomprehensible that it is worth repeating in full. I have read this several times and remain dumbfounded, but it will give you an idea of British constitutional nonsense:

“The House of Lords Act of 1999 removed all but 92 hereditaries, then numbering 750, breaking a 700-year-old right for all peers to sit on and vote from the red benches. The remaining 92 were elected by all the previous hereditary peers in the House grouped by party affiliation – 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, three Lib Dems, two Labour and 17 others. These numbers are set – when one Conservative resigns, a new Conservative is elected. The decision to retain 92 hereditary peers was a forced compromise from then prime minister Tony Blair, who, in his planned House of Lords reforms, had sought to remove all of them but was forced to back down following opposition from the Lords themselves, instead agreeing to let a small number remain as a temporary measure ahead of further reform. Yet over two decades later the number of hereditary peers remains the same.”

Clear? Rational? Democratic? No, no, no.

Now the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, wants to scrap the Lords. Agreeing that the current system is idiotic is the easy bit. The difficulty is in reaching a consensus about what should replace it. Personally I think that an upper chamber of 100 or even 200 people elected by proportional representation and serving long – perhaps eight- or 10-year terms, with two terms maximum – would be worth considering.

In the 18th century, then US president George Washington once described the upper House of Congress, the Senate, as being like a “saucer” in which the “hot tea” of debate in the lower House of Representatives might “cool". Even if the US Senate today does not entirely live up to that reputation, it is a worthy ambition. A second upper chamber gives governments time to reflect and time to be criticised before, perhaps, unwise ideas turn into unworkable laws. And like most British people, I suspect I am entirely persuadable on what the future upper house or British Senate might look like. But on the living fossil of the House of Lords in 2022, I am utterly intransigent.

Despite the 200 or so very hard-working members, the other 600 oddballs, duffers and relics have turned the Lords into a House that has had its day. It needs to go.

Published: November 23, 2022, 9:00 AM