It is often the case in Labour leadership contests that constitutional reform plays a role, only to disappear from the scene once the new leader is chosen. This is likely to be the case this time with Rebecca Long-Bailey’s idea of having an elected upper chamber to replace the House of Lords, whether she wins or loses. This is just as well because an elected upper house is a bad idea, as I will now argue.
There are many worthy criticisms of the House of Lords that could be made. It is too large, as in, there are too many members; it is supposed to be impartial and detached from party politics, yet most of the members are under a party whip; the remaining hereditary peers and bishops give it an unnecessarily antiquated feel. Yet, for all the complains about the upper chamber, it works. It holds its own against the House of Commons, as much as it allowed, very often. Although a whip is operated against a large number of the members, it is a relatively weak one given no one can lose their peerage. If the a member of the House finds something is important to them, they can largely ignore their party when they feel like it.
An elected House of Lords would solve few of the problems that the current upper chamber faces, while losing a lot of its benefits. Complain all you like about the fact that members of the House of Lords are whipped, if it was an elected chamber, the parties would have way more power in the upper chamber than they do now. The members would be elected, and thus susceptible to the whims of the electorate of the moment, just like the House of Commons. Why have a revising chamber that is made up of more elected politicians? There is also the primacy issue. At present, the House of Commons has way more power than the House of Lords, and rightly so on the basis of being elected by the people. If both were elected, why should the House of Lords have less say?
If you want to reform the House of Lords, the answers are pretty simple. First, get rid of the rest of the hereditary peers and the bishops. Have a minimum amount of time needed to be spent in the chamber every year, maybe on a yellow card-red card basis. Establish the maximum number of appointments that can be made in any given year. Formalise the number of peerages available each year to the official opposition and to smaller parties (in relation to the latter, probably less than one a year). Do those things and you iron out most of the bugs.
Some will say that the problem with the House of Lords is that is rewards people sucking up to the prime minister/the leader of the opposition. Well, if you stop and think about it, so does the House of Commons to a large degree anyhow, and an elected second chamber would certainly not get rid of patronage in politics. Like many constitutional reform issues, it is talked about as a silver bullet to solving most of the country’s problems when it would do no such thing. It is also imagined that it would get us closer to the “progressive majority” being able to assert itself, the less said about here, the better.