Abolish the House of Lords to fix England’s democratic deficit

UK Government updates

Dan Jarvis is returning full time to Westminster. After serving as both a Labour MP and South Yorkshire’s first directly elected mayor, the ex-army major is simplifying his life. He says the decision to (in effect) return to opposition was tough. “I’ve been in government, making decisions and making a difference. That’s what I came into politics to do.”

Jarvis has run a sizeable conurbation including the city of Sheffield and a trio of large post-industrial towns: Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley; he is MP for the latter. The 48-year-old claims no ulterior motive in declining to run for a second term. “I’m just doing what I said I would do: get a devolution deal sorted and make it work for South Yorkshire.”

But he is bucking the trend of other Labour politicians over the past decade. Sadiq Khan left parliament to run London, Andy Burnham to Manchester and Tracy Brabin to West Yorkshire. Jarvis may have feared a by-election in Barnsley — prime territory for Boris Johnson’s Tories. Or he may be hopeful of a big role in Labour’s shadow cabinet.

Despite their lack of national prominence, it is no coincidence that some of England’s most compelling politicians today have opted to become mayors. For Labour MPs, with little prospect of an imminent return to government, these roles allow them to enact change. But as mayors of all stripes have risen in stature locally, their relations with Whitehall have become trickier. 

Johnson, who forged his reputation as London mayor, appears to have waned on English devolution. After brusque exchanges between him and Manchester’s Burnham during the coronavirus crisis, most of England’s 10 metro mayors feel they are now being bypassed. They argue in private that his levelling up agenda to tackle regional inequality, is overly centralised and top down. 

While money is important for tackling the decades-long disparities across England, power and local leadership are more crucial. Robert Jenrick, whose ministerial role included overseeing mayors before he was sacked in the recent reshuffle, pledged to “widen and deepen” devolution. One Tory MP reckons Jenrick’s replacement, Michael Gove, will follow the same path. “Michael is a big believer in localism, even when it’s uncomfortable for Whitehall.”

Will Tanner, head of the Onward think-tank, warns that Gove has to create local institutions that can manage change. “One of the unanswered questions of the agenda is that when ministers and officials want to create local drivers for change and economic renewal, they find local places don’t have the capability or capacity in civil institutions to take on more funding,” he explains.

Increasing the number of mayors will not go far enough. If Johnson is serious about tackling the political deficit in England, prompted by the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, he needs to bring them into the heart of national politics. Mayors need representation in Westminster to show those feeling left behind they are being listened to.

The solution is to bin the House of Lords. The bloated unelected chamber with 820 members is well past its sell-by date. The only strong argument for its survival is that the process of replacing it is too messy. A new chamber of say 200 — including legislative experts serving five-year terms — is what England needs. Adding representatives from the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could help secure the future of the United Kingdom too.

Reform would be popular too. According to polling last year by Survation, 71 per cent of Britons back overhauling the House of Lords. Support cuts across parties, the Remain and Leave divide, north and south. But as Tony Blair discovered after semi-successful efforts to reboot the Lords in 1999, constitutional reform is arduous and perilous. 

Johnson is plotting a decade in power and will argue at the next election, due by 2024, that he needs another five years to complete his levelling up plans. In his manifesto, he should raise the prospect of more mayors and a role for them in Westminster. Tackling regional inequality can only be done by tackling England’s democratic deficit.

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