Keir Starmer is planning to complete Blair’s constitutional vandalism

Members of the House of Lords await the start of the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords
Members of the House of Lords await the start of the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords

There are three parts to Parliament – Crown, Lords and Commons. Only the last is directly determined by a general election, so naturally it is on the Commons that attention focuses before July 4. But the British constitution contains and supposedly balances all three parts, so people interested in our country’s long-term political health should bear in mind the relationship between them.

Our political parties have little feel for this. One small symptom is how this election was called. When Rishi Sunak summoned the Cabinet last month to announce his sudden choice of an early date, he bounced his uneasy and unconsulted colleagues into agreement by telling them that he had already seen the King to ask for a dissolution and therefore the matter was settled. It was not right to use the King thus.

As for Labour, it now has a manifesto that promises to reform the House of Lords. The context is wider constitutional change and a generalised enthusiasm for “modernisation”. There will be an “Ethics and Integrity Commission” set above mere legislators. No doubt it will be devised by Sue Gray, who ran “Propriety and Ethics” in government when she was a neutral career civil servant, and then found it proper and ethical suddenly to pop up as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

There will also be “a new Council of the Nations and Regions”, rights for the Scottish government to “partner with international bodies” (the EU?), votes for 16-year-olds and much more.

Labour’s specific measures for the Lords are to force out all peers over 80, get rid of the remaining 92 hereditaries, institute a new “participation” requirement (rather like expelling students who do not turn up for lectures), make it easier to remove baddies, and reform the process of appointing life peers to ensure “quality” and representativeness.

I should declare an interest: I am a member of this soon-to-be persecuted body. But by some quirk of fortune, I do not come into any of the categories at which Sir Keir Starmer is waving his constitutional blunderbuss, since I am a non-affiliated life peer in my sixties. I am also fairly new to the House of Lords. So I hope I can regard the issues with a degree of detachment.

There will be some unintentionally tragi-comic consequences of Labour’s plans. One is that several of Labour’s leading peers, including the Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, the eloquent Lord Grocott (who is forever trying to expel the hereditaries), Lord Winston, the fertility doctor, and the evergreen Lady (Joan) Bakewell will suffer the involuntary euthanasia on which their leader insists. So much for Labour’s manifesto commitment to give pensioners “the dignity and security they deserve”.

It will also be piquant and piteous to watch the ejection of one particular Labour hereditary, who is currently a deputy speaker in the Lords. In 1963, the legendary Leftist Tony Benn won his long battle to change the law so that he could disclaim his inherited title of Lord Stansgate and continue as an MP. His son, Stephen, however, thinks differently, and is the present Lord Stansgate. “Hereditary peers remain indefensible,” says Labour’s manifesto. Not while the latest scion of the Benn dynasty graces its benches, say I.

I note with sorrow that the 16th Earl of Kinnoull, the distinguished Convenor – they have no leader – of the independent cross-benchers, will be for the chop. (And by the way, with an average age of 74, and 33 hereditaries, the crossbenchers will lose a huge chunk of their number once the reforms become law.)

I note with amusement that the most significant group to escape “modernisation” is the bench of 26 Anglican bishops: it now becomes easier to understand why the “right reverend prelates” (as they are always referred to in the Chamber) have voted so reliably with the Labour Party over the past four years.

For decades, perhaps even centuries, there have been well-rehearsed arguments about why there should not be a House of Lords. They should be listened to politely, of course, but it is hard to stifle a yawn whenever one does, because they almost always evade the key prior question: “What do you want the House of Commons to be?”

If you want the Commons to enter a struggle for power with the second chamber, then of course you should hurry to create a new, elected body which will enjoy popular legitimacy. If, however, you want the Commons to continue as the cockpit of the nation and the body through which the country is governed, then you should stop fussing and let the Lords continue more or less on its own sweet way.

Anyone reading the Labour manifesto innocently might think that what it proposes is radical reform. It promises that it will institute “an alternative second chamber that is more representative of the regions and nations”. That, however, is an aspiration rather than a plan. The “immediate” modernisations that Labour wants to get on with are those I have listed above.

Why these second-order, somewhat ill-natured reforms and no real big picture? To answer that question, one must go back to Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997. For the first time ever, he constituted the Lords by Act of Parliament (as opposed to its centuries-old prescriptive right). Getting rid of the hereditaries was Stage One of his plan, but this proved more arduous than he had expected, so he contented himself with jettisoning over 700 and allowing 92 to remain, pending Stage Two, a new second chamber. Stage Two never came.

Sir Keir is treading in his master’s footsteps. Labour now, as then, is obsessed with the numbers in the Lords, although the full figure of nearly 800 is in practice irrelevant, since roughly half do not attend or claim public money, and the conventions of the place mean that a government outnumbered there is not necessarily a government defeated. Its cull will make room for lots more of its own appointees.

All Labour’s immediate measures, not only on numbers, but on supervision, regulation, participation and process of appointment are best seen as the completion of what the Blair government began. They are intended to set Stage One in concrete, without any urgent interest in finding the right Stage Two.

Their overall consequence is that the Lords will become almost 100 per cent a House chosen by patronage, and that each new government will feel compelled to use that patronage in an arms race to outnumber its opposing predecessor. The attitude of mind is to seek out any traces of variety, anti-bureaucratic independence, or traditional custom and practice and stamp on them.

The present House of Lords has been tending in this direction since the Blair years. When it does assert its independence, it tends increasingly to do so by obstruction (as seen over Brexit or Rwanda) rather than by the gentler arts of revision and asking government to “think again”. Nevertheless, it remains, if not the watchdog of the constitution, at least a sniffer dog which can detect when something is amiss.

Among the good qualities I observe in its daily workings are public spirit, a lack of partisanship, an interest (now absent from the Commons) in how workable laws are made, courtesy in debate, and a variety of what is now called “lived experience” which ranges far beyond Westminster.

I would not pitch the virtues of the Lords too high, but I would say that Britain could do a lot worse and, very shortly, we shall.