Labour and the Lords – History Misused

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It’s fascinating to see the House of Commons beginning the 2nd reading of the Reform of the House of Lords Bill. Nick Clegg is being attacked by members of his own government as well as the opposition as he tries to make the case for reform.

He has claimed that we should remember that Labour has always supported an elected House of Lords. As Margaret Beckett pointed out, this is entirely incorrect. Prior to the 2010 election Labour never supported an elected Lords in its manifestoes.

In its early years, at the time of the 1918 constitution, the Lords were, of course, hereditary. Their unconstitutional behaviour towards Lloyd George’s budget which had led to the 1911 Parliament Act was fresh in the memory, and Labour understandably did not want a reactionary, overwhelmingly Tory, undemocratic House to frustrate the policies of a future progressive Labour government. Labour’s first policy statement in June 1918, Labour and the New Social Order, therefore proposed abolition of the House of Lords. This, however, was left out of the election manifesto in December 1918.

For almost a century after that, Labour’s manifestoes made very little reference to the Lords. Labour’s concern was primarily with the powers, not the composition of the Lords. There were occasional brief references to the Lords not being allowed to obstruct ‘the people’s will’. Thus the famous manifesto of 1945, Let us Face the Future, included towards the end ten words to this effect. The 1935 party manifesto had revived the proposal to abolish the Lords. but it subsided and would probably have disappeared in the manifesto had a general election taken place in 1940.

In fact, such figures as Attlee and Dalton had written that a second chamber, to revise and improve Commons legislation, was desirable. They felt that an elected Lords might summon up the will to challenge the primacy of the Commons. Dalton favoured a second Chamber that was not the product of ‘direct election by popular constituencies’ but indirectly elected by the House of Commons itself, a proposal by a former Cabinet minister, H.B. Lees Smith. This odd idea did not survive.

The Attlee government by-passed changing the composition of the Lords. Hereditary though they were, the Lords deferred to the Commons through the Salisbury-Addison convention. Labour did, however, see the need to restrict the power of the Lords to delay or conceivably veto legislation coming from the Commons (eg perhaps the nationalization of iron and steel). One blow to reformers had come indeed in 1948 when the Lords exercised the power of veto over abolishing capital punishment in the Criminal Justice Bill. And so the 1949 Parliament Act reduced the delaying power, as is well known, from two years to one. Proposals in all-party talks convened by Morrison for creating life peers were promptly abandoned.

Labour did nothing about the composition of the Lords for years to come. It gave support to the life

Photograph of the debating chamber of the Hous...
Chamber of the House of Lords                                (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

peers created in the Act of 1958. In 1966, however, Richard Crossman, leader of the House, insisted that reform of the Commons, his main objective, should be considered alongside reform of the Lords. After the Lords rejected economic sanctions on Rhodesia in 1968, Harold Wilson revived the Lords issue in 1969 (ignored in the 1966 manifesto) with complex proposals for a part elected, part nominated House (to which the Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, was hostile). It included a proposal which would allow up to 80 peers being nominated by the prime minister. This was defeated in the Commons by a bipartisan campaign, led on the Labour side by Michael Foot who denounced the proposed remodelled Lords as ‘a Seraglio of eunuchs’.

To Callaghan’s joy, it was ignominiously dropped.

The Lords then reappeared on Labour’s programmes during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The idea, however, was never to have elected Lords but to abolish them entirely. As is well known, the abolition of the Lords was included in the 1983 election manifesto, the celebrated ‘suicide note’ which led to the worst election defeat for Labour since 1918. It vanished in 1987. Thereafter New Labour in the 1990s focussed on removing the hereditary peers, without immediately proposing that they be replaced by elected ones. The myriad party and government proposals since 1997 are familiar to colleagues. But the outcome was that in 2010 Labour committed itself to an elected house (albeit endorsed in a referendum). No manifesto and no leader between Arthur Henderson and Tony Blair had done so before.

The fairest conclusions are, I think, as follows:

(i) Lords reform has never been one of our priorities. Labour has always focussed on very different, mainly social and economic issues. To say that the party ‘have always favoured Lords reform’, however defined, comes close to saying nothing.

(ii) Labour has invariably focussed on the powers of the Lords, together with proposals three times (1918, 1935, 1983) for abolishing it. On balance it has been consistently in favour of a bicameral legislature ou grounds of good governance..

(iii) It has been concerned above all to ensure that the Lords, however composed, should not be encouraged to thwart the will of the Commons or challenge its primacy.

(iv) Like Lloyd George in 1911, it has over the decades not favoured an elected House, which might not be a force for progress. Our leadership stance today is, for good or ill, at variance with earlier tradition. Opinions will vary on this, and I offer none here. I am just concerned to get our discussions based on historical fact and not on fiction.

Of course, historical precedent isn’t a reason to take a policy position today. The House of Lords does need to be reformed. However, the current bill is poorly drafted, badly thought out, and will cause a great deal of difficulties at a later date should it be allowed to pass. I therefore hope this particular bill falls.

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