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Labour's Lordless Britain

Picking your battles in opposition is hard. Criticising decisions and the delivery of the incumbent government can get you so far, but voters also need to know what you would do if elected. You need a few points of difference. A few wedge issues that point to the wider narrative you’re trying to tell about voting for “us” or “them”.

Which takes us to Keir Starmer’s announcement that a Labour Government would abolish the House of Lords. On one level, this works as a wedge issue. A Labour Party calling for an elected Lords provides a clear contrast with the Tories who are content with the status quo. What’s more, the Tories are in the middle of their latest spate of honours scandals, with Boris Johnson’s resignation appointments taking his total to 106 despite only three years in office. In roughly the same time Brown appointed only 34 peers and neither he nor Blair indulged in a resignation honours list.

Johnson’s yet to be sworn in nominations will take the upper house to over 800 eligible working members. When combined with the 650 MPs in the Commons that leaves the UK with one of the largest legislatures in the world, second only to China, a country of 1.4 billion people. Surely, the sheer scale of the Lords means reform is essential?

Well this may be true, but from a communications perspective Labour’s approach is full of pitfalls. For a start it’s not clear many people care. Yes, recent polling from UCL shows the majority of Brits would support an elected upper chamber. But is it a priority issue? Is it an issue which helps get out the vote? We’re not so sure.

It also falls foul of the trap political parties so often fall into - talking about a policy that only really affects politicians. Starmer is right to say that action needs to be taken 'to restore trust in politics'. But is changing a few politicians’ jobs really the way to do that? The public are concerned about the economy, the NHS, cost of living, inflation, energy bills, housing. How about restoring trust in politics by doing something about that?

Tackling the public’s concerns is the final problem. In that now infamous interview in June 2016, in the final days of an equally infamous referendum on the United Kingdom's future with the European Union, Michael Gove blankly stated that the British people had had enough of experts. The Tories could be accused of latching onto that ethos ever since, appointing peer after peer who are experts in the party faithful rather than possessing the skill to scrutinise legislation that will affect generations to come.

But this is where the real nub of the issue with Lords reform lies. Despite the Lords overflowing with copious amounts of cronies, a great deal of talent also graces its chamber. This talent, over the years, has been invaluable in the legislative process holding the government to account and introducing pivotal changes in areas from social welfare to ESG. As Baroness Hayman recently pointed out, the Lords are often the mechanism for closing the gap between government rhetoric and policy; in 2021, the government's post-Brexit financial services bill made no mention of the climate emergency until the Lords introduced amendments on green financing.

Labour needs to take stock and realise what it's got; slimming down the bloated upper house and reforming how members are appointed may be critical. However, finding a place for these indispensable individuals in any new system will be vital to its success. Simply doing away with that expertise may not work as a wedge and it could leave a Labour government incapable of delivering on what people really want.


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