Labour and Lords Reform – a short history lesson

Steve Bell cartoon on Lords reform

Labour has announced that it would replace the House of Lords with an elected senate. There are reasons why supporters of Lords reform should be cautious about celebrating too hard about this, as Labour’s promises in this area have failed to blossom into meaningful action so many times in the past. But it is progress – a fully elected senate and no caveats about needing a referendum first – and it is something to hold them too if they win the next election.

The Liberal Democrat response has been curious and revealing. Speaking on their behalf, Sir Malcolm Bruce said:

“We could have given the UK greater representation in parliament, but when presented with the chance, he bottled it; turned his back and ran. This is simply lip-service from a Labour party who have no intention of actually delivering.”

You would think that the Lib Dems would be a bit more cautious about labelling others as dishonest, given the hole that they’re in. Leaving that aside, it is simply not true to say that the reason Lords reform fell in 2012 was because Labour walked away. They were no angels, but to pin the blame on them is to ignore Tory treachery, different Liberal Democrat priorities.

Talk to a Lib Dem MP between May 2010 and September 2012 for more than five minutes and it will be perfectly clear what their main preoccupation was: boundary changes. Seriously, I personally spoke to around a dozen of them in that period and that’s all they ever wanted to talk about. As the boundary changes were published, it increasingly dawned on them that they had signed a suicide note by agreeing to the boundary changes and a reduction in the number of MPs, and they were fixated by how they might be able to break that promise. Everything they did during that period was going through that lens.

Thus is was that as soon as the Lords reform proposals were published, the Lib Dems started threatening to block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to fulfil their promise on Lords reform. From the point of view of actually replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, this was disastrous. Tory backbenchers don’t respond well to threats, especially from junior partners they are determined to squash, and the message Labour were getting was that if they helped scupper Lords reform, they would be freed from boundary changes as well.

The fact is that Labour was split on Lords reform. Managing to derail the process helped to avoid them looking that way. It became increasingly clear that the Tories were even more split (despite promising Lords reform in their manifesto) and that Labour would have to carry the government through the entire process, at every stage. It also undermined the Lib Dems and got them a policy concession they wanted. Under those circumstances, even the most strident supporter of reform would struggle to not make the decision that Ed Miliband did.

If the Lib Dems had not made support for boundary changes a precondition, has said that that deal was done and that they would stand by their coalition partners, there would in all likelihood have been fewer Tory rebellions over the issue and Labour would have had less of an incentive to dissemble. Of course, it would have looked weak, and would have meant that the Lib Dems would be facing even more losses in the next election. Given the choice between party and principle, they chose party. I don’t especially blame them for that either, but please spare me the self-righteous indignation over how Labour behaved in response.

That was all two years ago. What concerns me about the Lib Dems now is that an awful lot of them seem to believe their own hype. I’ve read an awful lot of tweets this morning from Lib Dems denouncing Labour betrayal on this issue. Yet the fact is that if you want House of Lords reform then your best bet is Labour winning at least a plurality in the next general election. It certainly won’t happen if the Tories win. And it certainly won’t happen if what remains of the Lib Dems in the Commons in 2015 sit around whingeing about missed opportunities.

Making Lords reform a partisan issue in the way that the front bench Lib Dem team seemed determined to make it won’t actually make it happen. Once again, they seem to be putting party ahead of principle – and on this occasion I’m a lot less sympathetic.


  1. Nice try, James, but your re-written history doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. These are the facts. Jack Straw’s 2008 cross-party White Paper never became a Bill because the Labour Cabinet (incl. Miliband) bottled out. The Cameron/Clegg Coalition built on Straw’s proposals, published a draft Bill in 2011, it was improved by a Joint Committee of MPs/Peers and passed its 2nd Reading in the Commons with a huge 338 majority (193 v 89 Tories, 202 v 26 Labour & all 53 Lib Dems in favour). Only then did Miliband and the Shadow Cabinet not only fail to support the Programme Motion but refuse to suggest an alternative timetable. Clearly, they put party games ahead of principle. Result: the agreed Bill could have been an Act by now, and we would have been well on the way to the first elected Senators.

  2. Fortunately we have the years 1997-2010 for comparison, during which time Labour had no need/ability to pass the blame on to anyone else. And what did they do about Lords reform then?

  3. Paul, if you’d actually bothered to read what I said, I didn’t deny that they put party before principle. What I said was that the Lib Dems did too – sacrificing Lords reform to provide a pretext for going back on their commitment to support the boundary changes. If they’d been truly committed to Lords reform, they wouldn’t have acted the way that they did. Labour may well have put party before principle, but so did the Lib Dems. So a little less of the moral indignation please.

    Sid, well they achieved more in terms of Lords reform in 1997-2001 than anyone else had done since 1958 or anyone else has done since. Do you really consider booting the vast majority of hereditary peers out of the Lords as insignificant?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.