Is it a sign of the authenticity of my left-leaning credentials that I’m instinctively averse to Keir Starmer’s proposal to abolish the House of Lords? It could be. It’s a cliche, though an accurate one, that people on the left are quickest to criticise one another. Of course when anyone says that about the left, people on the left get cross, but particularly if the person saying it is on the left themselves because… well, see previous sentence. The whole “never kissed a Tory” vibe so dehumanises anyone not on the left as to make them literally beneath contempt. And in terms of evading criticism, being beneath contempt can sometimes work as well as being above reproach and is a state of grace a damned sight easier to access.
So perhaps my kneejerk reaction that the leader of the Labour party has got something wrong again is a rather moving confirmation of what a warm-hearted dyed-in-the-wool progressive I actually am. On the other hand, I am slagging him off for wanting to get rid of the House of Lords so maybe I’m just a reactionary old bastard. Perhaps my real problem is that I love the House of Lords.
Well I do love the House of Lords. There, I’ve said it! I mean, it’s so Christmassy! Particularly when 10 of them are leaping. But also in general. Try putting up a Christmas tree in the House of Lords and you’d barely notice it what with all the red and gold and panelling and ecclesiastical windows and elderly men wandering around in crimson white-trimmed robes. In the House of Lords, it’s Christmas every day: the Queen’s just done a speech and everyone is settling down for a snooze and a row. I bet the woolsack is full of boardgames.
Constitutionally speaking, of course, it is questionable. I get that. It’s pretty difficult to defend. Does that make it indefensible? Christmassy but indefensible, like a Bavarian market in December 1938? The whole concept of an aristocracy still wielding so much power in the democratic era was always, in legislative terms, a bit of an unearthed socket and the attempts to fix that, most notably in 1911 and 1999, were both by their own admission botch jobs. The Parliament Act of 1911 even says that “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”. Well, it’s 111 years and counting, which I suppose is one of the many meanings of “not immediately”.
Obviously, the current Lords is not hereditary, but neither is it elected. It’s chosen piecemeal. It’s some people, many of them eminent, many of them wise, many of them old. Quite a lot of them politicians but not all. It doesn’t seem like a foolproof system and, in principle, all the major parties accept the need for change. So why my irritation at Starmer proposing its abolition?
The government’s view is that, with such constitutional proposals, Starmer is just “playing politics” rather than focusing on all the disasters befalling the country, which is what it claims it’s doing. This is horrendously unfair in two ways. First because many of the disasters are the government’s fault and not, in fact, Vladimir Putin’s, however much he may not be helping with NHS waiting times. Sunak and co shouldn’t get too self-satisfied about their feeble attempts to clear up their own mess. And second because it is the business of government to govern. Starmer isn’t allowed to govern – he hopes to at some point, but you can’t really say “Why isn’t he governing like we are?” “Why all this theorising about the future?” That, apart from pointing out the latest catalogue of cabinet cock-ups, is his job.
Proposing constitutional reform is exactly what the leader of the opposition should be doing at a time when the current system could hardly be demonstrating more clearly its inability to produce competent national leadership. My beef is that he’s all brave and reformist when it comes to the nonsensical but festive House of Lords, but doesn’t want to do anything about the House of Commons. Which chamber is causing most problems for the country, would you say? The composition of the Lords may be random but, compared with the Commons, those guys are doing fine. Reforming the Lords and not the Commons is window-dressing.
Proportional representation in the House of Commons might not specifically help the Labour party, but it would enormously benefit the left in general. The reason leftwingers reserve their bitterest criticism for one another is because it is the side of politics that is worst at moral compromise. In our two-party system, all the compromising has to be done behind closed doors within parties, in the hope of projecting the illusion of a united front. Rightwingers are better at that. They compromise more readily because they’re less inclined to ideology.
Terrifying though it is to contemplate, out of the two parties who have any chance at power, we are currently enduring the ministrations of the one that is best at achieving pragmatic unity. And look at it. Still, the Tories’ propensity to acrimonious division is like a wryly raised eyebrow compared with Labour’s full-on riot. The system doesn’t work and it’s not the fault of the House of Lords.
Under a constitution where coalitions can be made in plain sight, and it is not necessary for all members of a left-leaning government to come from the same party and be signed up to the same vision of a progressive future, the perfect can cease to be the enemy of the good. Leftwingers are far more likely to find common ground if expressing their differences isn’t deemed a betrayal of their only viable collective movement. Starmer may feel like a radical when promising to sling out a load of coronets and ermine, but he is wilfully ignoring the real problem.