Abolish the Lords: Labour's consultation dilemma

Posted on 7th December, 2022


Gordon Brown's 152-page tome on economic and constitutional reform is full of serious ideas, but the headlines are all about replacing the House of Lords and establishing a new second chamber.

Most press reports of the document's launch this week reported that the Labour Party will now consult on these proposals, but in doing so it faces some issues:

  • There are 40 recommendations. In my view, 15-20 of them would warrant significant consultation under normal conditions of being Government proposals.
  • Major constitutional change is especially controversial and has a history of failures. Conventional wisdom - and experts such as the Institute for Government advise that, to have any chance of success, there needs to be maximum consensus. 
  • This Report acknowledges this and recommends "that the Labour Party should consult widely on our plans and take in the thoughts and feelings of people in all four nations." (Page 144)
  • It suggests "a series of Citizens’ Assemblies as part of a ground up conversation with the people of Britain on the change they want to see."
  • The reason for consulting immediately is clear. Under current arrangements, a new Government can only override the objections of the Lords where its proposals have been sufficiently spelt out in its Election Manifesto. A vague commitment to examine options for replacing the Lords would invite years of delay and procrastination, no doubt accompanied by endless consultations. 
  • The Party therefore wants to fight the next Election with as well-prepared a proposition as possible. On page 146, it even contemplates a single gargantuan piece of legislation - a New Britain Act. Its Recommendation No 40 therefore is "that the necessary consultation and preparatory work should begin now, and this should include a ground-up conversation with the people of Britain."

So how will Labour consult?

It has been tried before. Nineteen years ago, whilst Blair was in office, the party ran a BIG CONVERSATION. It asked 206 questions that overlapped to the extent that it became impossible to analyse. Thousands took part in what was then an innovative use of online polls, and in political terms it was declared a success for having secured such unprecedented participation in policy-making. A year later, commentators claimed it had little real impact.

For the problem for Opposition parties is that they seldom have an open mind. In this case, Keir Starmer seems committed to the principle of replacing the Lords. We are told that they will only want to consult on aspects of implementation. The new chamber will apparently be markedly smaller than the present Lords, chosen on a different electoral cycle – with "the precise composition and method of election matters" open for consultation. That is a huge area of likely controversy - with 57 varieties of solutions. Is the Party able to conduct a sophisticated dialogue without steering towards the preferences of its leading front-benchers and policy-makers?


Then there is the question of who to consult. All the major parties consult regularly, but much of this is via focus groups or through existing policy forums or other internal machinery. Maybe it should consult its own Members of Parliament, but if it did, it might well learn that those close to their constituents have different priorities and would prefer to consult them on the cost of living and such issues, and not the niceties of constitutional reform. 


Note, however, that the commitment is for a "ground-up conversation with the people of Britain." To do that justice would require a budget and organisational capacity which the Labour Party would struggle to deploy in the coming months.


So ten out of ten for being committed to consult.

But how many marks will it receive for its consultation?

Watch this space!


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