A House of Lords of the left? Corbynism and parliamentary reform

Do plans for an elected Lords go far enough or should the Labour leadership look to ideas around full abolition and the creation of a Citizen's Assembly?

In the 2016 Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of extending democracy in “national politics, communities, the economy and workplace”. Through policies like renationalisation and the discussion around alternative models of ownership, we are beginning to see how the economy and the workplace can be democratised. The leadership’s increasing willingness to assert the will of local communities in the control of public services and in challenging outsourcing are part of a growing programme for the democratisation of communities. However, there is a nagging sense that the leadership’s proposals for the renewal of national politics have been less developed. Plans for a Constitutional Convention, informed by citizens’ assemblies debating “where powers should be held, who should hold them, and how they should be accountable” including on the voting system, the voting age and House of Lords reform, did feature in the 2017 manifesto, but appear no more advanced than when they were first announced by Corbyn in late 2015. Nor are they particularly developed from the proposals floated by Ed Miliband in late 2014 and included in the 2015 manifesto. The position of Shadow Minister for the Constitutional Convention, established by Corbyn when his iteration of the policy was first announced, has remained vacant for nearly a year.

The lack of emphasis (or marginalisation?) of this agenda is understandable: there is little public appetite for it and policies around the democratisation of the economy, workplace and community that directly address voters’ immediate economic concerns rightly take precedence. It’s far harder to demonstrate how a sweeping programme of parliamentary reform will materially improve people’s lives. However, as W. Elliot Bulmer and Dan Hind argued in these pages, central to our conception of Corbynism should be the understanding that radical and lasting economic and social reform will only be achieved if our institutions are radically redrawn too. An ongoing quietism on matters of constitutional and parliamentary reform, therefore, poses a threat to the wider project of Corbynism.

The question of the Lords

The 2017 Labour manifesto stated that:

“Our fundamental belief is that the Second Chamber should be democratically elected. In the interim period, we will seek to end the hereditary principle and reduce the size of the current House of Lords as part of a wider package of constitutional reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain.”1

If a Corbyn government were only to deliver even these small changes, it would have arguably achieved the most profound parliamentary reform (outside of devolution) since the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, which undermined the Lords’ ability to veto legislation and formally established the Commons as the dominant chamber. Even the moderate proposal of moving to a fully elected second chamber would encounter fierce opposition, however. Lords reform was to become the ‘unfinished business’ of New Labour’s programme of constitutional reform after debates over what exact proportion of the chamber was to be elected ended in deadlock. The Coalition Government’s attempts to legislate for a mostly-elected chamber retaining a small number of appointed members and Lords spiritual (bishops) died in 2012 following opposition from Conservative backbenchers. The only significant reform of the Lords in recent years was the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, a private member’s bill suported by the Coalition Government, which instituted a long overdue mechanism for peers to retire or resign permanently and for persistent non-attendees and those convicted of serious offences to be expelled.

The arguments for Lords reform don’t need much rehearsing here: a body of obscure and unelected ermine-clad party grandees, donors, bishops, celebrities (regrettably, two thirds of the judges from The Apprentice are now in the Lords), industry figures and academics, mostly serving at the discretion of the parties that appointed them and possessing genuine power over our laws, has no place in a country that heralds itself as a modern democracy. It is bloated in the extreme: with over 800 members it may be well below its late ‘90s peak of over 1,300 members (before most of the hereditary peers were culled) but it remains the second largest legislature in the world, behind only the National People’s Congress of China. Peers do not even need to speak in a debate, vote or even enter the chamber to claim their £300 attendance allowance. The only elections for the Lords are the absurd by-elections that take place whenever one of the 92 remaining hereditary peers dies or retires, so that they may be replaced by another of their ilk. The sheer ridiculousness of the Lords, as it is currently comprised, shouldn’t distract from how disgusting, embarrassing and downright anti-democratic it is.

Barriers to reforming the Lords

Opponents of a fully or partially elected Lords often suggest that the move would undermine the quality of scrutiny the House provides, turning it into a more partisan chamber. If peers have one eye on re-election and the continuing preferment of their parties, they argue, then they’ll have less time and inclination to focus on line-by-line scrutiny of bills and the unpicking of government policy. Further, abandoning the appointments system in favour of elections means a shift away from a chamber full of specialist knowledge of science, industry, the arts etc, to one stuffed with party political careerists.

It is certainly true that the Lords contains a significant number of ‘Crossbench’ and ‘non-affiliated’ peers - nearly a quarter of the overall number. Many are indeed ‘experts’ and leading figures in their respective fields. Their votes can prove decisive and have been crucial in several government defeats in the Lords in recent years. However, their lack of a uniform position often means their votes effectively cancel one another out. Attendance and voting rates among these theoretically independent peers, often still employed in their respective fields, are far lower than those appointed by their parties2. Party-affiliated peers, around 70 per cent of all members, are nearly as susceptible to the party whip as their counterparts in the Commons3. Given that they owe their very position in the Lords to the patronage of their respective parties this is hardly a surprise. 180 peers, nearly a quarter of the overall number, are former MPs. Many others were council leaders, members of the devolved assemblies, party bureaucrats and donors. The idea that the Lords is independent and non-partisan is, being generous, only mostly wrong. Being less so, it’s transparent nonsense.

On the surface the argument surrounding loss of expertise carries more weight. A typical example of this can be found in a 2012 report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which called for a reformed Lords to retain an appointed element to ensure that crucial scientific and engineering expertise was not lost. These arguments are deployed again and again to halt moderate reforms, but they fail to acknowledge that ‘expertise’ can be incorporated into the legislative process in many other ways - particularly as it already is in the Commons by opening up the chamber and committee rooms to outside evidence. That being said merely ‘opening up’ Parliament risks creating further points of access to be captured for those already embedded in its culture such as the business lobby, academia and large campaign charities. More fundamentally, it’s crucial to resist the narrow framing of the ‘politics of knowledge’ inherent to arguments around expertise in the Lords. As Hilary Wainwright puts it, this is the question of:

“whose knowledge - and whose future - matters in public policy, and what kinds of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, exchange of emotions and exercise of skills count as expertise and knowledge in public decision-making, and why”4.

A more porous Parliament is a worthwhile aim only if the traditional conception of the politics of knowledge is overturned and a radical remodelling of how Parliament functions and relates to the people is undertaken. Conceding to anti-reformists by indulging concerns about a loss of mostly male, old, white and middle class experts is not in step with this. For our own part, continuing efforts to democratise the Labour Party and its parliamentary selection process are crucial to building a more representative politics, but beyond this it lies in the construction of a new form of participatory politics that transcends the confines of our party, regardless of the breadth, size and reach of its membership.

A bolder plan — full abolition?

The two main strands of argument against an elected Lords — the loss of expertise and the politicisation of the chamber — have been wielded repeatedly to prevent the moderate proposal of an elected Lords from being realised. But even if these arguments were incontestable it would not justify abandoning an elected Lords. Rather, it merely reinforces the case for something far more radical.

Full abolition of the Lords has been Labour policy in the past, as in the 1934 paper, ‘For Socialism and Peace’ where it was proposed on the grounds that the Lords would “interfere with the legislation of a Labour Government from the outset of that Government’s accession to power” and that the chamber represented the “the reserve power of those vested interests in society which have always been hostile to progressive legislation”5. The 1979 manifesto pledged to abolish the delaying power and legislative veto of the House of Lords6 and by 1983, with Labour led by the abolitionist Michael Foot, full abolition was readopted as a manifesto commitment7. Under Neil Kinnock party policy softened somewhat, but the 1992 manifesto still pledged to replace the Lords with an elected Second Chamber which would be limited to the power to delay for the lifetime of a Parliament any changes to designated legislation reducing individual or constitutional rights8. This was a more radical position than that put forward in the 2017 manifesto.

By definition, full abolition would leave us with a more democratic system than we currently have. Shifting to a unicameral (that is, single chamber) system would present some challenges, but it’s worth noting that when we have designed legislatures from scratch, such as in Scotland, they were all unicameral. The main difficulty in abolishing the Lords is that it would necessitate significant reform of the Commons, particularly as regards the legislative process. Opponents would suggest that this level of complexity is a reason to not pursue full abolition, but it should be regarded as more of an opportunity than a challenge – an opportunity to radically recast Westminster and create a more open and participatory model.

The question of how the Commons would cope with a greater burden of legislative scrutiny in a unicameral system is a difficult one, but not insurmountable. In the Commons detailed line-by-line scrutiny of most bills is performed by Public Bill Committees of appointed MPs. These committees already have evidence taking powers, enabling them to solicit oral and written evidence from interested parties. These powers could be expanded and committee stage elongated to create a more open and participatory stage for all bills. So-called experts could even be seconded on to the committees as non-voting lay members and granted the ability to submit bill amendments with the sponsorship of an MP. Labour’s 1980 draft manifesto ‘Democracy at Westminster’ proposed that following Lords abolition these committees be rebranded as Legislative Committees and granted additional powers, many of which the Public Bill Committees of today already have. The draft manifesto also proposed a further intermediate stage to take place between the Legislative Committee’s consideration of a bill and before Third Reading. Following this a Revision Committee would consider the precise drafting of the bill, providing recommendations to the House which all MPs would then approve or reject. As the draft manifesto states these Revision Committees would “effectively…be performing the only useful role which the House of Lords now performs”9.

The thornier issue is perhaps not the reconstruction of the legislative process following abolition to allow for more time for detailed consideration of bills, but MPs’ ability and capacity to perform an expanded legislative function. As it is many MPs are ill-equipped or unwilling to provide high-quality scrutiny of bills, particularly without relying on their party whips or leadership for direction. There is also the simple matter of time. Even the lowliest and laziest backbenchers have multiple demands on their time, many of which are outside of Westminster. Two measures proposed by the 1980 draft manifesto — banning MPs from holding second jobs and moving sittings to more regular hours — are still valid today. To free up time some of the Commons’ functions could be shifted elsewhere — for example why not expand upon Corbyn’s experimentation with taking questions from the public for PMQs by implementing a weekly ‘People’s PMQs’ outside of the Commons? At the very least this would rid us of the grubby, pointless spectacle of backbench MPs reading out questions handed to them by their whips each week. It is also worthwhile exploring measures that would prevent governments from introducing hastily-drafted legislation and expanding avenues for pre-legislative scrutiny. Both of these would reduce the onus on MPs to correct basic drafting errors, allowing them to focus on the policy substance of bills.

A Citizens’ Assembly?

In 2012 Tony Benn proposed a move to quasi-unicameral system by replacing the Lords with a “national advisory committee” formed as a “representative gathering of people from different parts of our society”. This body would have some role in scrutinising legislation and making recommendations to the Commons, which become the sole initiator of legislation and retain its primacy as the final decision maker. Corbyn has spoken of creating citizens’ assemblies, to shape “political accountability for the future”, as part of the broader debate on the Constitutional Convention but there is a suggestion that these would be on a more limited, ad-hoc and issue-by-issue basis (such as the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit), rather than as a standing advisory committee along Benn’s lines. Reserving citizens’ assemblies for questions of constitutional reform, as Labour’s current policy does, is predicated on the understandable notion that power should be granted from citizens to politicians and not the other way round. But why not expand this idea to all other spheres of policy and especially to those whose impacts are most keenly felt?

One of the lessons of last year’s general election for the left should be that we have thought too little of voters. We should place greater trust in their ability to see through dominant and skewed media narratives. Greater trust in their ability to grasp debates around the merits of policies and different approaches to running the economy. Greater trust in their ability — when given the time and resources to do so — to make decisions on the policies that impact their lives. The literature on experiments with citizens’ assemblies in this country supports this. Take for example, the study into the 2015 assemblies on English devolution, which found that “citizens are ready, willing and able to take part in participatory and deliberative forms of democratic practice in relation to complex policy issues”. Further, involvement reversed the perception among participants that politics was something imposed upon them, promoted increasing levels of “deliberation, confidence and listening” and led to many shifting their attitudes and beliefs10.

A bold plan for the replacement of the Lords could involve a fusion of Benn’s idea and the Citizens’ Assembly approach. This could mirror the existing committee model in the Lords, where committees on subjects like Science and Technology, Communications and the EU are in constant operation, alongside ad-hoc committees that are convened to look into topical matters (e.g. in the current session of Parliament one such committee is examining artificial intelligence) or performing post-legislative scrutiny to review the impact of policies once they’ve been implemented. The creation of this new body would also afford the opportunity to implement other exciting ideas Corbyn has proposed to renew democracy, such as the “massive multi-person online deliberation” floated in his digital democracy paper during the 2016 leadership election11, to enable wider participation and confer greater legitimacy upon the assembly’s recommendations. Alongside a more radical and far-reaching devolution settlement a Citizens’ Assembly could also form part of the response to the London-centric nature of our politics — it could be sited somewhere permanently outside of London, move from region to region or operate concurrently across multiple sites. Newly established and already existing devolved and local bodies could feed up into a Citizens’ Assembly, providing a direct channel from below into the centre.

Quite how such an assembly would be constituted and how its members would be appointed or chosen is a difficult circle to square. How would we ensure that it is truly representative (or more pointedly, ensure that it placed historically underrepresented and marginalised groups at the fore) and not simply captured by the same groups and individuals that dominate existing points of access? What role would the social movements that inform Corbynism and exist outside of it play? How do we ensure that participatory democracy is not dismissed as “somehow mindless, the politics of the ‘mob’”, but instead a model which enables “active minds linking their experience to that of others, and thinking through the sometimes conflicting implications of both”?12. These are difficult questions, but ones it is essential to grapple with if we are to expand the scope and extent of British democracy.


We have a political culture that is simultaneously awed by Parliament and deeply ignorant of how it actually functions. This culture is fundamentally conservative and serves to preserve in aspic an institution that is opaque, undemocratic and literally falling apart. Any Labour Lords reform plans, ranging from the mild transitional demands of the 2017 manifesto to a full replacement by a Citizens’ Assembly, will encounter fierce establishment opposition. It will prove far easier to neuter the well-rehearsed arguments around the dangers of an elected chamber and the resulting loss of expertise and degradation of its legislative function if we look beyond mild reformism and centre the discussion on a radical new participatory model.

What might seem like an obscure and technical debate around the future of the Lords actually speaks to the heart of Corbynism. Not simply because an unreformed Lords, like much else of our constitutional inheritance, has the potential to impede our radical agenda, but because its abolition could represent a powerful demonstration of the ‘new politics’. In part yes, by washing away the undemocratic stain of unelected peers, but more fundamentally through the construction of a new participatory Parliament that would, to turn again to Wainwright, “overturn the traditional hierarchies of knowledge and authority”, firmly entrenching heretofore unheard and underrepresented voices at the very heart of our politics.

  1. Labour Party. ‘For the Many, Not the Few: The Labour Party Manifesto’ (2017), pg. 102 

  2. An Electoral Reform Society report ‘The High Cost of Small Change: The House of Lords Audit‘ (2017) showed that “out of 213 eligible, crossbench and non-affiliated peers, 87 (41%) voted fewer than 10 times in 2016/17 (72/183 Crossbenchers and 15/30 non-affiliated peers)”. The corresponding figure was just 7% for Conservative peers (19/259), 14% for Labour peers (30/208) and 6% for the Lib Dems (7/104).  

  3. The same ERS report demonstrated that “the average Conservative peer supported the government in 98.72% of the votes in the 2016/17 session” and “the average Labour peer voted against the government in 89.6 percent of votes”.  

  4. Hilary Wainwright. ‘A New Politics from the Left’, Polity Press (2018), pg. 5 

  5. Labour Party. ‘For Socialism and Peace’ (1938), pg. 27 

  6. The 1979 manifesto stated that “No one can defend on any democratic grounds the House of Lords and the power and influence it exercises in our constitution. We propose, therefore, in the next Parliament, to abolish the delaying power and legislative veto of the House of Lords.”  

  7. The 1983 manifesto included a commitment to: “Take action to abolish the undemocratic House of Lords as quickly as possible and, as an interim measure, introduce a Bill in the first session of parliament to remove its legislative powers - with the exception of those which relate to the life of a parliament.” 

  8. The 1992 manifesto pledged that “Further constitutional reforms will include those leading to the replacement of the House of Lords with a new elected Second Chamber which will have the power to delay, for the lifetime of a Parliament, change to designated legislation reducing individual or constitutional rights”. 

  9. Labour Party. ‘Democracy at Westminster’ (draft manifesto) (1980) 

  10. UCL Constitution Unit. ‘Democracy Matters: Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution‘ (2016)  

  11. Jeremy Corbyn for Leader. ‘Digital Democracy Manifesto’, (2016), pg. 4 

  12. Wainwright (2018), pg. 129-130