Still riding high on a wave of popularity and a solid by-election victory, Labour under Keir Starmer is increasingly looking like a Government-in waiting. Whilst they would be wise not to take anything for granted, one thing a Government needs is policies. So far, there has been nothing unusual with Labour’s approach – any election strategist will tell you that the Opposition don’t want to be announcing detailed policies until much closer to the election. This is because quite frankly policies risk denting your popularity, and without them you can be all things to all people and just embody the public’s frustration with the Government of the day.
Nevertheless, the process is starting in the background. This week, Starmer hired a new Director of Policy who will lead on writing Labour’s manifesto. We are probably some way off a string of concrete policies, but Labour have already gone big in one area: reforming the House of Lords.
Just weeks after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson nominated two former aides to the Lords – one in their 20s – Labour have announced that they would replace the House of Lords with a “new reformed upper chamber”. Labour would strip future PMs of the privilege they currently enjoy of having the power to appoint people to the Upper Chamber. In its place, Labour would hold a consultation on the size and composition of an elected Upper Chamber.
Whilst there isn’t much meat on the bones of the policy, it is one that would ultimately change the face of British politics forever. Therefore, it is a curious choice for one of their first big policy announcements. On the one hand, it doesn’t address the main issues that people face on the day-to-day such as inflation and the cost-of-living crisis. But what it does do is put further clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives. Whilst Johnson, and the 44-day PM Liz Truss, are allowed to give lifetime jobs to their donors and friends, Labour would modernise British democracy and remove unelected peers.
Reforming the House of Lords has considerable popularity – a YouGov tracker shows that 48% want a “mostly elected” House of Lords, compared to just 6% who support a “mostly appointed” Upper Chamber. At the heart of a modern Western democracy sits a near 800-person chamber that hosts religious figures, hereditary peers, and party donors – it is easy to see why people would support change. The Government hit back instantly arguing that a newly elected chamber would cause “legislative gridlock” and a “confused mandate”, pitting two elected chambers against each other. These arguments may have merit and as the Institute for Government argues, the Lords plays an important revisionary role in passing legislation. They have the time to consider the details of legislation that the fast-paced House of Commons does not. This argument, however, isn’t likely to win you many votes. If you are struggling to pay your bills at home, you are unlikely to want to defend an appointed House of Lords that many see as the epitome of privilege and grandeur.
Reforming the House of Lords was one of Keir Starmer’s pledges when he ran for Labour leader so this policy shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is interesting is the timing of the announcement. It would probably be unfair to suggest that Labour should set out detailed policies on the cost-of-living considering they do not know what the state of the public’s finances will be post-Election, so perhaps the next best thing is a policy that clearly differentiates themselves from the Conservatives at a time when both Parties seem to be moving closer to the centre-ground.
Announcing something and actually delivering are two very different things in politics however, and if Labour are to take control of the Government they will have a very inexperienced ministerial team and they will need to expand significant political capital and government time to achieving such a reform. Electorally, it is a smart policy announcement, but one wonders if a possible Labour government would have the stomach for such a fight.