LONDON – Britain’s opposition Labour Party on Monday pledged to scrap Parliament’s unelected upper house if it wins government as part of a raft if policies intended to stake out Labour's ground for the next election.
The left-of-center party has been out of power since 2010, but has a big lead in opinion polls after months of scandal and economic turmoil for the governing Conservatives. Labour is seeking to cement its place as a government-in-waiting with a raft of policy proposals it says will transfer decision-making power from the central government in London to cities and regions around the U.K.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the current House of Lords is “indefensible” and he would replace it with an elected chamber it as soon as possible after taking office. The next national election must be held by 2024.
The House of Lords reviews legislation passed by the elected House of Commons, and for most of its 900-year history was composed of hereditary nobles.
Reform of the Lords is a thorny issue that has bedeviled successive governments. A previous Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair swept hundreds of hereditary nobles from the chamber two decades ago, replacing them with “life peers” appointed by the government and political parties. But attempts at further reform have stalled.
With life peers sitting alongside a smattering of judges, bishops and dozens of remaining hereditary nobles, the Lords currently has about 800 members – making it the second-largest legislative chamber in the world, after China’s National People’s Congress.
Labour proposes replacing it with a smaller, democratic “assembly of nations and regions.”
The idea is among proposals drawn up for the party by Gordon Brown, the U.K.’s last Labour prime minister. Brown, who led the country between 2007 and 2010, recommended giving cities and regions more power to raise and spend money. He also proposed more powers for Scotland and Wales, which already have semi-autonomous parliament based in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Brown said that would help defuse demands for Scottish independence from the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh.
“That’s going to be the debate from now on in – not independence versus the status quo, but change within Britain versus change by leaving Britain,” he said.
Starmer said he wanted to implement the proposals within five years of taking office, arguing that the U.K.’s regions were being “held back by a system that hoards power in Westminster.”
“Britain is one of the most centralized systems in Europe and the center has not delivered,” he said at an event in Leeds, northern England.
Labour is trying to draw firm lines between itself and the right-of-center Conservative Party, which is on its third prime minister since winning a big majority in 2019 under Boris Johnson.
Labour remains reluctant to revisit the most divisive issue Britain has faced in years: Brexit.
The party backed the losing “remain” side in the 2016 European Union membership referendum. But Labour now says it will not seek to rejoin the bloc or seek dramatically closer economic ties, despite mounting evidence the divorce has hurt trade between the U.K. and its nearest neighbors.
Starmer said more Brexit wrangling was the last thing the country needs but that he would seek an improved relationship with the EU.
“I do think we can move forward to a better deal because I don’t think this one is working properly,” he said. ___
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