Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer’s recent statement that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber has been a long time coming and was, to an extent, predictable.
His justification, that it allows politicians to plant their “lackeys and donors”, is less so. In fact, although Starmer aimed this jibe at former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is actually Labour’s previous attempts to disempower the House of Lords that led to this.
The basis of attempts to reform the House of Lords by Labour originate not with Labour, but with the Liberal Party and the 1911 Reform Bill. This was introduced after repeated rejections of the ‘People’s Budget’, and a Liberal victory in the general election of 1910 to confirm their mandate for the budget.
It effectively stripped the Lords of their power to reject legislation, limiting rejections to three parliamentary sessions, or amend it against the will of the Commons. It also made the Lords practically unable to reject government budgets.
This was then picked up and strengthened by the Parliament Act of 1949, under the first truly stable Labour Government headed by Clement Atlee.
Despite being brought through by Labour, not the Liberals, this was a direct successor to the Reform Bill of 1911 and the two are often bundled together. It further limited Lords’ power of rejection, limiting it to only two parliamentary sessions.
Further attempts to reform the Lords met with mixed success. Wilson attempted to limit the voting power of hereditary peers, while still permitting them to take part in debates. However, he was defeated by the Conservative opposition, and members of Labour who favoured total abolition.
Michael Foot, who led Labour in the early 1980s, also placed abolition on Labours manifesto. However, his election defeat prevented this from being enacted.
The next real reform of the Lords came, as with many significant constitutional changes, with the victory of New Labour in 1997.
By the time of New Labour, the stance on hereditary peerages had changed significantly. In 1911, most peers were hereditary peers. However, in 1958 Harold MacMillan’s government passed the Life Peerages Act, which allowed for the creation of life peerages. Life peers held their title and place in the House of Lords for the duration of their life and could not hand this down to their offspring, unlike hereditary peers. Most new peers after this became life peers, and very few hereditary peerages were created after this. Life peers were also created by the sovereign.
However, the choosing of who should be made a peer was on the advice of the Prime Minister, with some choices delegated to opposition parties. Furthermore, there was no upper limit to the number of life peers which could be created.
Therefore, when New Labour entered government, they followed a century of slow but steady dissolution of the House of Lords’ power, and the slow undermining of the hereditary principle upon which it was based. Their manifesto for the 1997 general election promised the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
Although 92 hereditary peers were allowed to remain as part of a compromise in the Commons, the passage of this legislation led to the exclusion of 650 hereditary peers from the House of Lords. This led to many vacancies within the House of Lords which would be filled over the years through the creation of life peerages. This has led the two incoming governments since then (Labour in 1997 and Conservatives in 2010) creating large numbers of peers, to help support their legislative agendas.
Given that New Labours 1997 manifesto promised the removal of hereditary peers rather than outright abolition, one must question whether this ability to tilt the House of Lords in their favour was their intent.
There were further proposals in the 2000s to introduce an elected element into the House of Lords of 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80%, and for total abolition in favour of a ‘Senate of the United Kingdom’, but none of these ever passed. Therefore, the effect of New Labours reform of the House of Lords was to create a system whereby successive governments, regardless of party, had to be able to pack the lords with their own life peers to gain the best possibility in advancing their government’s agenda.
The allegation by Starmer that the Johnson filled the House of Lords with his “lackeys” may be wrong, but it was inevitable given the nature of how the House of Lords operated after 1999 and the political necessity of comparative advantage.
Fundamentally, the status quo of the House of Lords that Sir Keir Starmer is criticising is primarily the result of the incomplete legislative programme of Tony Blair. Following the removal of the hereditary peers and the gradual packing of the House of Lords with Labour peers, further attempts at creating an elected upper chamber failed. Therefore, by proposing the creation of an elected upper house, Starmer is proposing the completion of work started, and the quagmire created by, by Blair. However, he may also be undermining what the Liberals and Labour had been working towards since 1911: a compliant upper house which would permit their legislative agenda.