Keir Starmer’s plan for Lords reform recognises that we’ve got a big problem. Trust in politicians in the UK has never been lower (12% in this poll). After decades of prime ministers lying to us, UK democracy is in crisis.
20 years ago, a million people marched against Blair’s proposed invasion of Iraq, sceptical that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction existed. Five years later, Brown’s ‘no more boom and bust’ promise, whilst deregulating the banks, culminated in the UK’s biggest financial crash since 1929.
The Lib Dems chipped in with promises to scrap tuition fees and end the two-party system, but when presented with a slice of power in 2010 through their coalition with the Conservative government, they sold out on both these promises.
“Austerity is necessary” was Cameron’s big lie. Then May waved her arms that “nothing has changed” whilst performing what’s still the one and only U-turn on a manifesto immediately prior to a general election by scrapping her uncapped ‘dementia tax’.
Amongst many other big fat lies Johnson told, he promised that there would be no border down the Irish Sea, whilst penning an oven-ready deal that did exactly that. He then partied during Covid when the strain became too much.
During Truss’s short tenure she tried to ‘pull the fast one’ that not taxing the rich somehow balances the books. So Keir Starmer’s vow to abolish the House of Lords to “restore trust in politics” should, in theory, be welcomed. However, scratch beneath the surface of his proposals and you may be even more concerned than before.
How will Lords be elected?
At Labour conference 2022, the Labour party voted for the first time in its history to back Proportional Representation (PR). Supporting PR was an enormous shift for the party’s members and union affiliates towards a more fair and trustworthy politics in the UK. As Dawn Butler MP has said on the subject –
“Some may say, ‘we never hear about democratic reform on the doorstep’, I say that we’re hearing about it every time a voter says they don’t trust politicians.”
Keir Starmer had already ruled out replacing Westminster’s current ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) voting system with PR, calling PR “not a priority”. Instead the newly commissioned report on the UK’s future under Labour focusses on Lords reform to make the House of Lords a fully elected second chamber. The report also promotes a UK ‘assembly of nations’ and further devolution of power to the regions.
This all sounds like a worthy cause. But, after two years of consideration, the report hasn’t yet stated how the new second chamber should be elected (page 143). This omission leaves open the possibility that Starmer might reform the Lords to our flawed FPTP system, the very system which has eroded trust in politics by awarding over-all Commons majorities on as little as 35% of the vote.
If this were the case, a door would then open to a one-party majority on less than half the vote in BOTH houses. The Lords has functioned as a longstanding system of checks and balances in UK democracy, albeit an establishment one, to moderate the extremities of FPTP elected governments.
For example, the tyranny of Johnson’s 80 seat majority on 43% of the vote was watered down because our 184 Crossbench Lords made up 23% of the second chamber. Worthy amendments were made to such bills as the Policing Bill, and the Lords could even have blocked the voter suppression contained within the Elections Bill if Labour lords hadn’t abstained. This vital role of the Lords in monitoring Commons policy changes would be thrown into doubt if its elections were based on FPTP. Using FPTP for elections to the Lords would be a regressive step for our democracy, and not remotely a progressive one.
PR, conflicts and resolutions
Conversely, if the assembly of nations is elected using PR, this could be pitched as a trial case to pave the way for PR in the Commons later. However, an immediate friction between the two houses would be created, which could even, as the report states, end up in the Supreme Court. This would maybe be a route to achieve PR for the Commons provided that familiarisation with the new electoral system only takes until a Labour manifesto promise for the 2028/9 general election. Alternatively, it could be an enormous self-inflicted banana skin which ejects Starmer from power after just one term.
The big problem with our democracy isn’t the Lords. The priority is not Lords reform and devolution but the current Westminster FPTP electoral system. Starmer knows this, as do his members, his union affiliates, Wes Streeting, John McDonnell, Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham, the Lib Dems, The Greens, 39% of Tory voters, 58% of Labour voters and 54% of all of us (up from 42% in 2021). Even Nigel Farage knows it. Getting outflanked on democracy by Farage isn’t the best look for anyone. It hasn’t worked out well for Labour in the past.
By preserving and even extending the inequality ‘hard-wired into our country by first-past-the-post’, Labour would be guaranteeing a return to hard-right self-serving Conservative tyranny in which progressive parties repeatedly lose elections. This would happen the moment Starmer loses just one.
That Starmer seems prepared to risk this by ignoring the calls for PR for Westminster from all sides of the political spectrum suggests that, despite the doublespeak of ‘restoring trust’, we maybe have reason to trust him less, not more.
Ed: Please read our other articles on this burning topic, from Bob Copeland on ‘Regional Governments’ and Philip Cole on ‘Lords a-Leaping’. We need an electoral system which represents the will of the people, and to do that we need a progressive government which supports PR.
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