Labour hopes to abolish the House of Lords within its first term in government, Sir Keir Starmer has said.
The pledge has been unveiled alongside the Labour Party’s new report titled ‘A New Britain’, which proposes far-reaching reforms to the UK’s political system. It was co-created by Starmer and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who together outlined the plans whilst speaking at a joint press conference in Leeds, England, on Monday (5 December).
The report includes 40 recommendations for Britain, including calls to give local communities more power over skills, transport, planning, and culture in order to drive growth. But the plan to abolish the House of Lords is one of the most noteworthy, as the chamber has been a central feature of British Parliament for centuries.
Starmer said the proposals in the report, which was commissioned two years ago and produced by Brown, would form the “biggest transfer of power out of Westminster and Whitehall” that “our country has ever seen.” He also told the audience in Leeds: “You are being held back… by a system that hoards power in Westminster. I’m determined we unbind ourselves and free our potential.”
So what exactly is the House of Lords, what would it mean for the UK if it were abolished, and what else did Starmer and Brown say? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the House of Lords?
The UK Parliament is made up of two ‘chambers’ - the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The House of Commons is publicly elected, consisting of MPs who received the most votes in their respective constituencies in the last general election. The political party which has the highest number of MPs sitting in the Commons then forms the government. Currently, the Tories have the most sitting MPs - so we have a Conservative Party government.
Contrastingly, the House of Lords is not elected - meaning the public does not vote on who sits in this chamber of Parliament. Instead, members are appointed in three different ways:
1. Life Peers
These are appointed by the monarch, currently King Charles III, on advice of the prime minister - and are traditionally awarded to individuals upon their retirement from important public offices, such as the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Prime Ministers also often take life peerages upon their retirement, (examples include Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson), but some choose not to - such as Edward Heath and John Major. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have yet to receive a peerage.
2. Hereditary Peers
As the name would suggest, hereditary peers become members of the House of Lords through birthright - a.k.a., eligibility is passed through a family. However, as of the House of Lords Act 1999, their place in the chamber is no longer an automatic birthright.
Despite this, there are still currently 91 hereditary peers sitting in Parliament.
3. Lords Spiritual
The final group in the House of Lords is the Lords Spiritual, which is comprised of 26 bishops of the Church of England. These places are occupied by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, while the remaining 21 places are filled by a mixture of the longest-serving bishops, and those who qualify under the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015.
The number of bishops in the House of Lords is set in law at 26, and when a bishop retires from his or her post (which is compulsory at 70), they also vacate their seat in the Lords. Lords Spiritual members are sometimes appointed as life peers after their retirement.
What is its role?
The House of Lords has three main functions: making laws, investigating public policy, and holding the government to account. It is less powerful than the elected House of Commons, as it cannot remove the government from office and can only delay, rather than veto, most bills.
However, it still plays a part in creating laws - as most bills have to pass through both houses in Parliament - and helps vet and amend bills which enter Parliament.
Will the House of Lords be abolished?
If Labour wins the next election and Starmer becomes the UK’s Prime Minister, it looks like the House of Lords will be on its way out. Instead, a new democratic second chamber would be created - called the Assembly of Nations and Regions.
Brown, who produced the report on the UK’s political future, explained: “Every second chamber in the world, with very few exceptions, is relatively small and usually smaller than the first chamber. And we’ve now got a House of Lords that has got 830 members. That is compared with the American senate which has 100 members to cover 300 million people - [while] we have got a House of Lords which is 800-plus to cover only 60 million people.”
He concluded that this means the current system is therefore “indefensible”, and added that there was a feeling that many in the House of Lords are there “simply because they have been friends with the Conservative Party and not because of their contribution to public policy”, warning that the issue of reform will “come to a head again” when Boris Johnson reveals his resignation honours list.
The new chamber would include representatives from UK nations and regions, with the purpose of giving back power to local areas and “protecting devolution.” Speaking in Leeds, Starmer slammed the “hoard[ing] of power in Westminster” and called the UK Parliament a “system which smugly thinks it knows what skills, transport, planning, and job support West Yorkshire needs better than the people who live here.”
The Holborn and St Pancras MP continued: “I’ve long been convinced that this broken model has held back our politics and held back our economy.” He added that he hopes the chamber’s abolishment will take place “as quickly as possible”, and took particular aim at hereditary peers, saying, “the sooner we can abolish them, the better.”
What has the response been?
While some have been supportive of the proposal, as the House of Lords has for a while been a more controversial aspect of British political power, others have criticised the plans.
Former Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke argued on Twitter that creating an elected upper house would end up “fatally undermining the primacy of the Commons”, and compares this to the “institutionalised gridlock” seen in US politics. The Tory MP also added: “If we want effective government of any colour [of any political party], this is a terrible idea.”
Others have argued that such policies should not be the priority for the UK, which as a country is still struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and is now faced with an energy crisis caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trade Minister Greg Hands said: “Labour are not fit or ready for government. They only have 3 policies -
- 20% tax on independent schools
- ending non-dom taxation which they allowed to thrive 1997-2010
- abolish the Lords
none of which will do much to help the economy recover from COVID and Putin’s War.”
Referring to the 40 recommendations set out in the report, Hands added in another tweet: “When you have 40 priorities, nothing is a priority.”
What other recommendations are in Labour’s new report?
There are several recommendations which form part of Labour’s plans to reshape Britain’s economic and political landscape. Some of the key ones include:
‘Cleaning up politics’
- Creating new rules for politicians and civil servants to help clamp down on MPs’ second jobs
- Appointing a “powerful” anti-corruption commissioner to root out criminal behaviour in the political sphere
- Handing new economic, taxation, and law-making powers to mayors and devolved governments
- Developing 300 “economic clusters” around the country - from precision medicine in Glasgow to creative media in Bristol and Bath - to double growth in the UK
- Rebalancing the economy to drive up living standards in the most deprived areas
- Transferring 50,000 civil service jobs out of London
- Extra powers for Scotland and Wales, with Scotland able to enter into international agreements in relation to devolved matters
- Devolution in Northern Ireland to be “restored and strengthened”
Elsewhere, during a series of broadcast interviews, Starmer said he does not want to abolish private schools, but argued their existing tax breaks cannot be "justified". He also said he does not believe returning to the single market would boost the UK’s economic growth - but added that he believes there is a case for a "better Brexit".