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I may be reading too much into this but it seems to me that Labour's manifesto during the 2017 election contained a curious ommission.

The 2015 manifesto under Ed Miliband had a commitment to replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber:

Labour is committed to replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, to represent every part of the United Kingdom, and to improve the democratic legitimacy of the second chamber.

By 2017 Labour's policy had changed to a "belief" in an elected second chamber but a commitment only to stopping hereditary peerages and reducing the size of the House of Lords:

Our fundamental belief is that the Second Chamber should be democratically elected. In the interim period, we will seek to end the hereditary principle and reduce the size of the current House of Lords as part of a wider package of constitutional reform to address the growing democratic deficit across Britain.

Was this just a strange choice of wording? Or does it represent an actual change of policy from 2015?

If there was a change of policy then that change would be highly puzzling, given that the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been an outspoken critic of the House of Lords over many years. He made the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber a policy commitment of his successful 2016 leadership campaign. In January 2017, he repeated his personal belief that there should be an elected House of Lords on Andrew Marr:

“We have a House of Lords which is dominated by a small number of people from London and the south east. I would want to see an elected second chamber that it is representative of all regions and nations of the United Kingdom. I think that’s very, very important. I think it should have an electoral mandate to go with it. It is not a new concept, it’s been in debate for a very long time. I would like us to get to that position by 2020.

And, as recently as 27th March 2017, Corbyn tweeted:

A new hereditary peer has just been appointed to the House of Lords. It's time to end this ridiculous system.

This is all highly confusing. What I want to know is:

  • Did the 2017 manifesto represent an actual change in policy from 2015?
  • Why did Corbyn talk about "getting [Labour] to that position by 2020", given that an elected second chamber was Labour's stated policy in 2015?
  • Given the widespread perception that Corbyn and his allies were largely given a free hand to write the 2017 manifesto by the party as a whole, why did Corbyn not put a clear commitment to an elected second chamber in that manifesto?
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    I'm tempted to edit "House of lords" to "Wisengamot" and flag to migrate to SFF.SE :) – user4012 Dec 9 '17 at 19:50
  • @user4012 The Wizengamot is a mixture of the House of Commons and the High Court strictly speaking. ;) – The Dark Lord Dec 9 '17 at 19:59
  • @TheDarkLord Given that, at the time the books were set (and written), the House of Lords was still the UK's highest court, I think it's a better comparison than the House of Commons. – owjburnham Apr 17 at 10:31
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  • Did the 2017 manifesto represent an actual change in policy from 2015?

Yes. In the absence of a clear manifesto commitment to a policy, it is harder for Labour to claim it has an electoral mandate to implement it. Most importantly, under the Salisbury Convention the Lords does not block legislation which would enact a manifesto commitment.

  • Why did Corbyn talk about "getting [Labour] to that position by 2020", given that an elected second chamber was Labour's stated policy in 2015?

Corbyn was speaking in January 2017. At that time, Theresa May had not yet announced the snap election which would be held in June 2017, and the next general election was scheduled for 2020. So it appears Corbyn was simply referring to Labour's manifesto for a 2020 election.

  • Given the widespread perception that Corbyn and his allies were largely given a free hand to write the 2017 manifesto by the party as a whole, why did Corbyn not put a clear commitment to an elected second chamber in that manifesto?

It appears the change in wording signals a change in policy priorities. It's not that Corbyn has suddenly decided an unelected House of Lords is just fine; more that he (and his allies, such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell) believe other things are more urgent.

The 2017 Labour manifesto includes commitments to radical change in public services, economic and social policy. All of these things would occupy a substantial amount of effort and parliamentary time. Corbyn was signalling he wished to emphasise these issues instead of constitutional reform.

Historical background

This would not be the first time Labour compromised on Lords reform in order to enact other aspects of its agenda.

Labour fought the 1997 election under Tony Blair with an unambiguous manifesto commitment to abolish hereditary Lords:

As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute.

Blair later walked back from this pledge. He negotiated an agreement with Conservatives in the House of Lords, in which they agreed to accept the hereditary peers being reduced in number to 92. This avoided a time-consuming parliamentary fight, over what Blair saw as an issue of secondary importance next to his other ambitious plans for government.

(The Salisbury Convention made it difficult for the Lords to directly block abolition of hereditary peers; but prior to the agreement on Lords reform they could, and did, delay and frustrate many other Acts of Parliament proposed by the Blair government.)

Probably neither Blair nor Corbyn would appreciate being compared to one another, but it's still an interesting parallel.

  • I can understand the point about priorities. I also understand about the scheduling of a 2020 election. But if it was Labour's policy in 2015 and Corbyn believes in it then surely the simplest thing would be to retain the existing pledge? Even if you don't want to expand the proposal just copy and paste from 2017? – The Dark Lord Dec 11 '17 at 10:33
  • @TheDarkLord: The whole point of Corbyn's leadership was a radical break with the past. That included rewriting the manifesto from the ground up. Corbyn and his allies would want to avoid any suggestion of "copy and paste", even on issues where they more or less agreed with Ed Miliband. – Royal Canadian Bandit Dec 11 '17 at 10:41
  • Even when that "break from the past" meant less progressive, less left-wing policies?!? I'd expect the 2017 manifesto to bolster those commitments, not water them down. By the way, I was actually surprised at how radical the 2015 manifesto was on reforming democracy. – The Dark Lord Dec 11 '17 at 10:49
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    This also reflects a (rather illogical) cultural divide in British politics; constitutional reform is a preoccupation of Labour centrists and Liberal Democrats, much less so on the Labour hard left (including Corbyn). It's no surprise that Miliband was much more comfortable than Corbyn with detailed plans for the constitution. – Royal Canadian Bandit Dec 11 '17 at 11:12
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit In one respect it appears illogical that constitutional reform is a preoccupation of centrists. However, generally the ideas for reform increase the overall proportionality of the system, which would tend to benefit them. Conversely, it's likely easier for a left-wing party to rely on the Salisbury convention to push policies through the Lords than an elected second chamber where it may no longer apply. – richardb Dec 16 '17 at 11:04

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