House of Lords Reform

Should the House of Lords be wholly elected?


■ A fully elected House of Lords would have the legitimacy that can only be derived from democratic elections. A second chamber, like all policy-making institutions, must be based on popular consent delivered through competitive elections. In a democracy, this is the only basis for legitimate rule. Appointed members simply do not have democratic legitimacy.

■ It would be more confident in its work of scrutinising and amending government bills, thus improving the quality of legislation. The non-elected basis of the House of Lords restricts its role to that of a ‘revising chamber’, concerned mainly with ‘cleaning up’ bills. Popular authority would encourage the second chamber to exercise greater powers of legislative oversight and scrutiny.

■ If no party has a majority, as would be likely under proportional representation, it would challenge the dominance of the executive. Only an elected chamber can properly check another elected chamber. While the House of Commons alone has popular authority, the second chamber will also defer to the first chamber. Full bicameralism requires two co-equal chambers

■ If elected by proportional representation, it would be more representative of the electorate. Two elected chambers would widen the basis for representation. This could happen through the use of different electoral systems, different electoral terms and dates, and through different constituencies. This would significantly strengthen the democratic process.


■ It would come into conflict with the House of Commons, as both Houses would claim democratic legitimacy. Two co-equal chambers would be a recipe for government pa-ralysis through institutionalised rivalry both between the chambers and between the executive and Parliament. This is most likely to occur if the two chambers are elected at different times or on the basis of different electoral systems.

■Institutional conflict between two elected chambers with similar powers would produce legislative gridlock.  Two co-equal chambers would be a recipe for government paralysis through institutionalised rivalry both between the chambers and between the executive and Parliament. This is most likely to occur if the two chambers are elected at different times or on the basis of different electoral systems

The recent history of Lord's Reform

The main focus of reforming Parliament has been on Lords rather than the Commons. This is because the defects of the ‘unreformed’ Lords are generally seen as more so serious.

Before 1997

 • The majority of peers (if not of working peers) sat in the House of Lords on the basis of heredity.

• The Lords exhibited a strong and consistent bias in favour of the Conservative Party.

Despite this, major reform  which was proposed in1910 has been put off for most of the 20th Century, The major obstacles to reform have traditionally been the Conservative Party ( when the Conservatives agreed to reform it was  to prevent more radical reform, as in the case of the Life Peerages Act 1958) The Lords also resisted change.  Any attempt to abolish or reform the Lords would be likely to stimulate such a battle with the Commons that the government’s entire legislative programme would be put at threat so Labour governments tended to put it off. Moreover, Labour was often divided over the issue. Whereas some Labour MPs wished to abolish the Lords altogether, others favoured its replacement by a fully elected second chamber, with others even being happy with the status quo for fear of creating a stronger check on any future Labour government.

In 1997 the Blair government had the majority and desire to reformed and so began a phased process of reform in 1999.

‘stage one’ reform of the lords 

In planning to reform the House of Lords, the Blair government learned the lessons of previous, unsuccessful attempts at reform. In particular, it recognised that, while there was general agreement about the central weaknesses of the Lords, there was substantial disagreement about what should replace it. Should the Lords be reformed or abolished? Should a reformed second chamber be wholly appointed, wholly elected or a mixture of the two? If the composition of the second chamber were to be altered, should its powers also change, and if so how? The solution was to introduce reform in two stages:

 • Stage one. This would involve the removal of hereditary peers, without any further changes to the composition and powers of the chamber.

• Stage two. This would involve the replacement of the House of Lords by a revised second chamber.

This approach was meant to avoid difficult and divisive questions about the composition and powers of the second chamber while  the ‘easier’ problem: ending the hereditary principle so the first stage was completed through the House of Lords Act 1999. However, to avoid delay, the government agreed to a compromise where a proportion of hereditary peers would remain  until stage-two reform took place. The number of hereditary peers was reduced from 777 to a maximum of 92.

Stage two was meant to follow- however this never happened. The first problem was the old one, that governments tend to have more important things to do. The Labour government had a long list of legislative objectives and no agreement among thier MPs of what stage two would look like. For many Labour MPs the removal of most of the hereditary peers and the appointment of a large number of new Labour life peers had dealt with the main problem by putting an end to Conservative dominance in the Lords. It also became apparent that the new spirit of assertiveness in the partially reformed Lords might become a problem for the government and would be worse with a partially or wholly elected second chamber.

Labour left office in 2010 with stage two still pending

2010–15 Coalition. AS part of the coalition agreement under which the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition was formed was  a commitment two a wholly or mainly elected second chamber on the basis of proportional representation. A   committee chaired by Nick Clegg  developed a draft bill by December 2010. This was delayed until May 2011 .The new chamber would have: 

300 members, 

80 per cent of whom will be elected using the single transferable vote system

 and who would serve for a single 15-year term.

 However, this plan one also failed, when, facing stiff opposition from Conservative backbenchers, the legislation was abandoned in August 2012.


A conservative back bench rebellion and Labour opposition (seen as opportunistic since Labour's policy was to support reform) meant  the bill was withdrawn.

In 2015, following a government defeat in the Lords over planned cuts to tax credits, Cameron proposed a more modest and narrowly focused reform of the second chamber. Under plans devised by Lord Strathclyde, the Lords would have been stripped of the ability to veto statutory instruments, their power being reduced to the capacity to ask the Commons to ‘think again’ about proposed legislation. However, the proposal was shelved shortly after Theresa May took over as prime minister, because it was unclear whether the reform was workable and because the government could not afford to pick a battle with the Lords with Brexit-related matters looming.

One of the main problems with Lords reform is the on going disagreement about the composition of the second chamber. Opinion is divided between three different options: 

Supporters of an elected second chamber tend to emphasise two key benefits. First, they stress the benefits of democracy, arguing that the only legitimate basis for exercising political power is success in free and fair elections. Second, they emphasise the benefits of full bicameralism, viewing a more powerful second chamber with popular authority as a way to combat ‘elective dictatorship’. 

Supporters of an appointed or nominated second chamber tend to stress the following two benefits. The first is that an appointed chamber could (rather like the present House of Lords) have greater expertise and specialist knowledge than the first chamber. The second is that  a weaker, appointed chamber  makes clashes between the two chambers less likely and does not lead to confusion about the location of popular authority. 

Those who back a mixture of elected and appointed members tend to suggest that such a solution offers the best of both worlds – a measure of democratic legitimacy but also expertise and specialist knowledge. However, any such solution can also be criticised for containing the worst of both worlds as well as for leading to confusion through creating two (or possibly more) classes of peer.

· House of Lords reform: 1997-2010 

When the Labour government took office in 1997, the upper house was dominated by hereditary peers who owed their titles to inheritance. In what was intended as a transitional reform 2 years later, the government ended the right of all but 92 of these peers to sit in the Lords. House of Lords reform would reduce the influence of Labour's opponents within the political system, as the majority of hereditary peers supported Conservative governments. The removal of most hereditary peers also gave the Lords a more 'modern' appearance. The majority of its members were now life peers, who were supposed to have been appointed on grounds of merit, reflecting a wide variety of fields of activity, including politics, business, the trade union movement, the arts and the military. No political party now enjoyed a dominant position in the Lords. From 2000 a House of Lords Appointments Commission nominated a proportion of peers who were not linked with a party. However, the prime minister and other party leaders continued to make nominations on party political grounds, and no agreement was reached on making the Lords either wholly or partly elected, so it continued to lack democratic legitimacy.

 2010 -2015  House of Lords reform and House of Commons boundary reform: Plans for a mainly elected House of Lords were dropped after a rebellion by 91 backbench Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats, who were the more committed of the two parties to a democratically chosen upper house, retaliated by blocking the implementation of legislation designed to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. 

Reform of the House of Lords summary

A number of proposals for major reform of House of Lords have been introduced since 1999. All have failed. They include:

Free vote, 2003. MPs had a free vote on seven options proposed by a parliamentary joint committee. None secured majority support. Peers voted for a wholly appointed House.

White Paper, 2007. This proposed a hybrid House: 50% appointed and 50% elected. A series of votes on reform options were held. 

2022: Labour leader Keir Starmer announced that, if elected, his party would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a democratically elected second chamber. The proposal, informed by Gordon Brown’s – constitutional review is intended to “restore trust in politics”. 

In 2020, Keir Starmer tasked Gordon Brown with producing plans to “settle the future of the union” and devolve “power, wealth and opportunity” throughout the nation. Brown established a commission on the UK’s future which included Labour councillors, MPs, Peers, legal experts and academics.

The commission published a report in December 2022. It set out 40 recommendations for constitutional change in the UK, covering rights, devolution within England, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, intergovernmental cooperation, and reform of the House of Lords. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the report proposed “the biggest ever transfer of political power out of Westminster and into the towns, cities, and nations of the UK”.