Indefensible Institution or Unnecessary Distraction?
In December 2022, Keir Starmer committed a future Labour government to replacing the House of Lords. In its place he promised “a new, smaller, democratically elected second chamber,” that will “[represent] the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.” Making the case for reform, he argued that no-one could “defend” the institution as it currently stands.
In truth, few defend the House of Lords as it is constituted today. Its swollen membership is second only to China’s National People’s Congress in number. With its grab bag of political appointees, bishops and hereditary peers, the Lords is little more democratic than China’s puppet chamber. With an average age of 71 - the oldest in the world - the United Kingdom’s upper house makes China’s representatives look positively sprightly at 52.
Instead, the criticism directed at those who embark on House of Lords reform tends to be practical in nature. It is often argued that reforming Britain’s second chamber is simply too great a task and one in which the British people have too little interest. Much of the political commentariat and many former politicians – sometimes opining from their own perch on the Lords’ red benches – argue that the challenge is too great and the political reward too small.
In this paper, we show that this view is misguided. Based on new public opinion research, conducted by Opinium for Labour Together, we discovered widespread dissatisfaction with Britain’s political system and acute opposition towards the Lords. When asked to describe the Lords in a single word or phrase, many voters simply reached for four choice letters.
When it comes to alternatives to the Lords, however, the public are unclear about the changes they would like. Our polling found no overwhelming support for any single option for reform. While there is a clear desire to replace the Lords, with what - or whether with anything at all - is a murkier picture. In this paper, we begin to explore some directions that reform might take, while being clear-sighted in our view that reform is necessary.