When justifying the House of Lords in The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot thought it one of the “dignified” aspects of the British system. After all, he wrote, although unelected, “an old lord will get infinite respect.” Having an aristocratic chamber prevented “the rule of wealth.”
It is safe to say this has not aged well. It’s not just that we are stuck with the aristocracy — ninety-two hereditary peers remain in the Lords. Recent history shows there is a strong correlation between donating £3 million to the Conservative Party and being ennobled: “rule of wealth” indeed. The open sale of positions in our outdated second chamber naturally raises questions about its future.
There seems to be a consensus among the liberal and social democratic left that the Lords should be reformed. Proposals include moving to an elected Lords, its abolition and replacement with a senate, or a move to a citizen jury model. Any of these would represent an advance, as would a single, truly democratic chamber.
In our complex, uncodified, and evolved constitution, one thing has always been a constant: the insistence on a second, unelected chamber to temper the democratic passions, such as they are, of the House of Commons. The House of Lords remains a testament to the English revolution that never was — there never was that Jacobin moment, that sweeping away of the ancien régime. Instead, the English bourgeoisie learned to live with the pageantry, and, indeed, ached to join in.
The Labour Party has not been immune from this. Until recently, only in 1935 and 1983 did Labour go into an election with the abolition of the Lords in its manifesto. The 2010 manifesto promised a gradual move toward an elected Lords. In office, the most Labour had been able to achieve was the reduction of the number of hereditary peers and making the remainder appointed. However, today’s scandals prove that this is hardly an advance when it is the prime minister who controls appointments and can pack the Lords with friends, donors, and allies.
The Labour left, of course, historically challenged the party to adopt a more consistently abolitionist position. Tony Benn, writing in his magisterial Common Sense (1993), argued that the House of Lords would always provide a “brake on radical legislation.” He called instead for an all-elected “House of the People,” as part of a wider project of Britain becoming a democratic republic. The House of the People would retain many of the same functions as the Lords but would be elected in proportion to the populations of the home nations. “Governments must be subject to checks and balances,” he wrote, “but these should be democratic.”
Something of this proposal was taken up by the Labour Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The 2017 manifesto called for an elected second chamber, and the 2019 manifesto promised a “Senate of the Nations and Regions.” Toward the end of the Corbyn era, the leadership published its constitutional vision, “Remaking the British State: For the Many, Not the Few.” Here, the idea of the senate was outlined in more detail by a constitutional lawyer.
As with so much, Labour policy has gone backwards since then. Instead of enshrining the report as policy, a further review is being carried out by Gordon Brown. We cannot rely on grandees and establishment figures to rule on such a matter. Keir Starmer must be compelled to abide by his pledge and guarantee that Lords abolition will be in the next manifesto. We need to defend and extend the gains made during the Corbyn era on democratizing our constitution.
Replacing the Lords with some form of elected chamber, on the one hand, may open up the possibility for another site of struggle in Westminster and opportunities to press a radical agenda, particularly if the voting system were more favorable to radical candidates. However, it is equally possible that the British elite could tolerate and integrate an elected Lords.
An elected senate would only have the powers the Commons gave it. We cannot have any illusions that Westminster can reform itself. Most of the people we would be trusting to judge on the future of the Lords are hoping to don ermine robes themselves one day.
The word “senate” should also give us pause. The United States has a democratically elected senate. It does not guarantee probity or integrity. It does not guarantee that a popular radical agenda could be passed any more straightforwardly, as democratic socialists in America are now finding out. A senator can be bought just as surely as a peerage can be sold.
A potentially more radical alternative to an elected Lords being offered by civic activists and liberal groups is a citizen jury model. The scrutiny function of a second chamber would be carried out by randomly selected voters. This “Citizens’ Parliament” would operate as a citizens’ assembly over two years, with ordinary people being compensated for their time. This would represent a huge advance over the current system and should ensure the voices of working people and marginalized groups are heard.
However, the advocates of this type of reform are always keen to emphasize that such an institution must be “nonpolitical,” nonfactional, nonpartisan. A random selection of people, without organization, without direction by a combined and organized political will, or pressure from below, could be more at risk of being directed by the organized forces of the ruling class, or captured by the “expertise” of the bureaucrats maintaining the institution.
Real constitutional reform can only come when it is being demanded and led by the masses of the country, led by a labor movement with a clear vision of the radical democracy it would like to establish. A democratic second chamber would function for the people only if there is an organized movement outside demanding change and holding it to account.
We should beware an age of cynicism, of a disillusionment with all politics. The MPs’ expenses scandal did not usher in a democratic renewal, but eleven years and counting of Tory depredation. If the Labour and socialist left neglect the issue of our constitution and corrupt system, other, more cynical actors may take it up.
It is a question of sovereignty, of where true power lies. Our system insists that sovereignty lies with Parliament. We, the people, are allowed a say every few years on who should be there. Outside of elections, occasionally, public discontent will concentrate legislative minds. But the people are seen as interlopers in this — the real drama is seen as being within Parliament: within the lobbies and across the benches. While loyally recording this, the political press debate and decide which issues or scandals will “cut through” from Parliament to the public — revealing the distance between the two.
Sovereignty instead should lie directly with the people. Our ultimate aim should be a single chamber, leading a radical, democratic republic. A directly elected senate should be a transition to a true House of the People.