This is an item from Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter for subscribers to Reaction. To receive it every weekend, become a subscriber here.
Some of my best friends are in the House of Lords. The current system of appointments, and the way in which it draws in folk not just from politics but also from business and even the media, means there is a good chance, if you work in the British media as I do, that some of the people you know and like will end up as members of the second chamber.
Those in the Lords tend to be proud of the institution and defend its existence on the valid basis that among its members are figures who have accumulated experience and wisdom. Reform would be complex, and a distraction, runs the argument in favour of leaving well alone.
That argument is no longer going to work, although the penny does not seem to have dropped, yet, with peers. Labour is going to abolish, or replace, the appointed House of Lords. Short of a Tory revival and Sunak victory at the election, we are living through the final years of the old system.
There was some bafflement at the weekend when Sir Keir Starmer announced his commitment to introduce an elected second chamber, if he wins the next election.
Why major on this now? Isn’t Starmer allowing himself to be diverted from what really matters to voters? Who cares about the Lords?
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On the contrary, this move by the Labour leader is ultra-smart politics that is likely to prove very popular in the run-up to the general election. It is a policy that is easy to communicate because it runs with the grain of public anger with institutions.
In the looming general election, to maximise the backlash against the Tories, Labour will seek to present the Conservative party as remote, rich and out of date. Regardless of the merits of individual peers, the Lords is going to come in handy as the embodiment of old politics by a party trying to capitalise on the idea it is time for a change. It creates a clear dividing line and forces the Tories to defend the unreformed system.
In doing this now and making it a manifesto commitment, Starmer is ensuring the unreformed Lords cannot block reform if Labour wins a majority.
Although Lords reform may not be a subject of much interest to voters this minute, part of the job of the opposition is to lay traps for tired governments. It will quickly become a hot topic if there are any scandals related to the Lords in the next 18 months, and Labour’s increasingly ruthless media operation gets going on linking all this in the public imagination.
Look, Labour will say, it cannot be right that Boris Johnson is rewarding the staffers who stayed by his side during his “Downfall” experience in the Downing Street bunker. Knighthoods, fine. But a place in the legislature? Not for much longer. In the latest edition of Private Eye there’s a spoof Boris resignation honours list. It reads like a postscript, encapsulating the end of an era and featuring peerages for Lord Wilf of Johnson (age 3) and Baroness Fruitella of Tottington (age 23), formerly deputy assistant head of wine suitcase replenishment in Number 10, March 2021 to May 2021.
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