Keir Starmer’s radical House of Lords idea

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The House of Lords’ origins are lost in the mists of the 13th century. Although for most of its existence it was the chamber of the aristocracy, it has largely lost that character as a result of two important changes made in the second half of the last century.

In 1958, a Conservative government created the office of “Life Peers” – that is, men and women appointed for life whose successors did not inherit their title. This was designed to make the Lords more meritocratic: in theory, at least, they were to be drawn from the most eminent citizens – distinguished scholars, scientists, business leaders, figures from the arts – as well as retired senior ministers. Thus people like Howard Florey and Lawrence Olivier came to grace the red benches.

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Then, in 1999, Tony Blair attempted to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit (although they would keep their titles). After fierce resistance, Blair reached a compromise: 92 hereditary peers, chosen by ballot among their number, would remain. How the number 92 was arrived at is a mystery, but it did have the paradoxical result that today the only members of the House of Lords who are elected are the hereditary peers – although being chosen by an electoral college of aristocrats hardly passes muster as a democratic mandate.

When one of the 92 dies or retires (usually the former), the hereditary peers elect their replacement; I remember being in the House of Lords tea room one afternoon at the time of such an election, when one of their Lordships stormed excitedly into the room to announce: “The Duke of Wellington has been elected!”

Now, Starmer wants to do away with the Lords altogether. Although the hereditary principle is indefensible from a democratic point of view, today’s House of Lords – which numbers more than 800, although fewer than half of that number ordinarily participate – largely consists of life peers. It cannot be denied that a few rogues have snuck in, their paths greased by generous political donations, trade union power, or other undue influence. But the recent creation of an appointments commission, to subject nominees to an integrity review, has largely eliminated that problem.

The House of Lords has a large crossbench of non-politically-aligned members. Debates in the Lords are polite, considered and erudite. By those measures, they are far superior to the proceedings in the Commons. During the Brexit debate, when the Commons degenerated into an abusive political killing field, the contributions in the Lords were particularly influential in solving many of the thorny problems of leaving the EU.

As with all major constitutional reform, the problem arises of what to do with the replacement. Starmer has made it clear that he does not favour a single-chamber parliament. This is a good decision: a house of review almost always improves legislation and accountability. (One need look no further than Queensland, whose upper house was abolished in 1922, to see the more authoritarian tone of politics which results from the removal of checks and balances.)

The House of Lords – inside the magnificent neo-Gothic palace.Credit:AP

Starmer’s current idea is for a kind of British senate, elected by proportional representation from across the regions of the United Kingdom. In such a structure, English regions – whose population comprises about 82 per cent of the UK – would overwhelm the rest of Britain. This will undoubtedly be provocative to the Scots (about 8.5 per cent) and cause problems in the always-disgruntled Wales and the tinderbox of Northern Ireland (less than 5 per cent each). It will only aggravate resentment among the Celtic nations. In Scotland, where the powerful movement to leave the UK has been somewhat subdued since the pandemic, it is precisely what the proponents of independence need to re-energise their cause.

Although it is almost two years until the next election, Labour must be favoured to win. Notwithstanding the cascading crises of the Tories, anyone who thinks a Starmer government would usher in a quieter, less divisive time is fooling themselves. Abolishing the anachronistic, undemocratic, irrational yet strangely effective House of Lords would be the beginning of a deeper, and perhaps existential, period of constitutional unsettlement. In his reforming zeal, Sir Keir Starmer should beware the law of unintended consequences.

George Brandis is a former high commissioner to the UK and a former Liberal senator and attorney-general. He is now a professor at ANU’s National Security College.

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