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News | Published February 26 2018

Peers versus the people?

After initial support for reducing the number of peers in the House of Lords, Theresa May has since jettisoned the plans, regarding the reforms as insufficiently thought through. Retrenchment of the power of the upper chamber has behind it a lot of political inertia, especially from the radical end of the political spectrum. This phenomenon tends to become particularly acute during populist political changes, such as during the People’s Budget in 1910 and, more recently, Brexit.

To this end, the most recent attempt at reform was that drafted by the Lord Speaker’s Committee in October 2017, in which it was recommended that the now-792 seat chamber should be cut to 600; and that, to bring about this more quickly, one peer should enter for every two that leave.

Having initially backed this, the prime minister decided instead on 20th February to put the brakes on this initiative, remarking that the recommendations “require further careful thought and engagement, particularly with the House of Commons, before those steps can be progressed.”

Recognising, however, that the number of peers that get appointed depends in large part on the discretion of the prime minister, May agreed that prime ministers ought to show restraint when appointing peers – something she believes she has done during her term so far. She explained in the letter, for instance, that she had nominated no peers during the last Parliament, nor during dissolution as is customary.

This reversal in enthusiasm came as disappointment for hopeful reformers such as Darren Hughes, for whom this change in sentiment signalled that May paid mere lip service to the issue, with no real intention of acting. Indeed, for people like Hughes, the ultimate end goal is an elected House of Lords, something roughly equivalent to the Senate in US politics.

The issue has particular salience for supporters of Brexit, since at present it seems that not only do Conservatives have a minority presence in the chamber but pro-Brexit ones do as well. The result, believed by some prominent Brexit spokespeople, is that this will undemocratically skew the final Brexit deal in a way that’s contrary to public opinion.

History does not always follow a linear trajectory, but historical political momentum seems to be in favour of making the Lords have either a more limited role and a more democratic one than is currently the case – something evidenced not only by historic encroachments on the upper chamber, but by the current political landscape, in which an increasing share of political actors (both left and right) support such a change.

Any substantial reform of the House of Lords will naturally be covered in the back pages of The 2018 Parliamentary Review.