No Senate, Please

Since the publication of Gordon Brown’s doorstop constitutional report for Labour Keir Starmer has been backed into a corner. Not only has he now committed to abolishing the House of Lords, which the report recommends, but he has also promised that he will do so in the first term of a Labour government.  

The most powerful Labour government ever elected was unable to entirely remove hereditary peers from the upper house in 1999. Starmer’s challenge is even greater.  

Theoretically, he has one thing in his favour: the idea of a new upper house seems broadly accepted, at least in theory. Brown and his friends in the media say that this is a plan whose time has come. Time to get rid of the Lords and to replace it with a senate of the regions. 

But when reforming something, especially as dysfunctional a constitutional ornament as the Lords, we should also ask another question. Why must it be replaced at all? Why do we necessarily need an upper house?  

Politicians think we do. Especially those whose view of unionism demands that they re-imagine Britain not as a unitary state – as it has been since 1707 – but rather as a “partnership” of nations and regions that exists in their minds alone. An upper house must be made to confirm this perspective.   

But senates are not all easy going, and they are not all effective and meaningful institutions.  

In Canada their politics is slowly drifting into a modern fantasy of nations and regions, with Quebec not only a province of the country but a founding “nation” in a partnership between French-speakers, English-speakers and (only occasionally) native Americans. They have a senate of the regions, full of arcane conventions of who gets appointed from what region, and the place is a constitutional embarrassment. No one can define its precise function and it is defended in largely the way an appointed Lords is here: that it is full of “wise owls” – the title of an actual children’s guidebook – who know better than the Commons and the people. It costs a lot of money and accomplishes little. 

In New Zealand they had a Legislative Council – an upper house organised on similar lines – that was eventually abolished in 1950 because it was an appendage and a waste of money to maintain. Unlike federal countries such as Australia and the United States, New Zealand’s reformers argued, their unitary state (like Britain’s) did not need a rubber-stamp revising chamber. 

Why not – if we are in the business of reform – appreciate these lessons and go instead for a unicameral Commons? If the Lords is an embarrassment now, how will its replacement be less so? Countries with less august and auspicious democratic traditions than Britain have managed and even thrived with just one chamber. Surely we could do the same. 

This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.

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