THE Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn is backing an SNP call for opposition parties to stop nominating new members for the House of Lords in a bid to increase the pressure for reform or abolition of the institution.
Corbyn’s support has added momentum to a new SNP drive to challenge the Westminster system with its un-elected second chamber at a time when the reputation of the Lords is at an all-time low.
With the credibility of the Lords in question following the exposé of the former Scottish Labour peer Lord Sewel as a prostitute and cocaine- user, the SNP has launched an attempt to reform the UK parliament.
At the end of a week that has seen politicians from a variety of parties attack the House of Lords, SNP Na h-Eilean an Iar MP Angus MacNeil has written to the four Labour leadership contenders and new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron asking them to embrace the SNP’s stance of refusing to nominate new peers.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, MacNeil argued that by agreeing to refuse to put up new members, the parties would de-legitimise the upper house, a state of affairs which would then force it to be changed or abolished.
MacNeil’s initiative was last night given a major boost when Corbyn, the bookies’ favourite to become the next Leader of the Opposition, said he agreed with the move.
David Cameron has indicated that Lords reform is not on his agenda by announcing plans to expand the number of peers to more than 1,000.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to the current system appeared to be underlined yesterday when it was reported that the founder of the Ultimo underwear range Michelle Mone is to be made a Tory peer.
Nevertheless, the SNP are hopeful that their 56 MPs plus a Corbyn-led Labour could mount a meaningful challenge to the Prime Minister’s narrow Commons majority.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems made manifesto promises ahead of this year’s general election to replace the current set-up with an elected chamber.
MacNeil said:“The public are growing more and more concerned with the cost of Parliament and David Cameron plans on expanding the House of Lords to over 1,000 members; this will do nothing for public finances or public confidence.
“Those who believe that our representatives should be democratically elected should not be adding to their contingent in the unelected house – that is why I am challenging the UK Labour leadership candidates, and also the new leader of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, not to appoint any new members of the House of Lords until concrete reform is established.”
He noted that “generations of UK political leaders have called for and promised reform of the House of Lords” yet none have delivered.
He said: “The SNP do not take up seats in the House of Lords because we do not see unelected legislators as a form of democratic governance, I believe that many in the Labour and Lib Dem ranks believe the same.
“As we’ve seen already in this parliament, the Tories have a weak majority. If all progressive voices in the Commons’ unite on this issue, then we may be able to drag the House of Lords kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
Corbyn said he would stop nominations to the Lords should he become Labour leader.
“A thorough and comprehensive review of the House of Lords is long overdue. We as a Labour Party must be at the forefront of a much-needed progressive constitutional reform agenda,” he said.
“I propose that in opposition the Labour Party convene a constitutional convention to move toward a more democratic devolution settlement across the regions and a more representative parliament.”
He added: “In the interim, under our proposals, the Labour Party will certainly not nominate new peers for the Lords which risks undermining its legitimacy.”
The development adds to the clamour for Lords reform which followed the publication of footage showing Sewel wearing an orange bra and snorting cocaine from a £200-a-night prostitute’s breasts.
Sewel, a former Scotland Office minister in Tony Blair’s government, was in charge of standards in the upper house and had been a deputy speaker of the chamber until he was forced to resign last week.
There were further concerns last week about the pay to individual peers after it emerged that £1.6 million has been paid over the last five years to peers who did not speak at all.
The row saw Lord Kirkhill, another former Labour Scotland Office minister, defend receiving £156,900 for attending the Lords, despite speaking in only two debates, plus £78,747 in travel expenses from Aberdeen.
A source close to Andy Burnham, one of the other Labour leadership contenders, said he would shortly put out his policy on Lords reform.
Last week Burnham said: “We put a collection of establishment figures, old politicians and party donors into a grand second chamber with the atmosphere of an upper-class gentleman’s club.
“We give them a daily allowance of up to £300 for turning up. We tell them they will not have to ever face the public in an election or face any serious form of accountability.
“And – to no-one’s great surprise – we then regularly have scandals about the behaviour in the House of Lords.”
Yesterday, Lib Dem grandee Lord Steel of Aikwood urged the SNP to back him in his plans to replace the Lords with an elected senate, an arrangement, he believes, would better represent Scotland’s interests.
But Farron, the Lib Dem leader, did not respond positively to the SNP’s overtures.
Despite describing the Lords as “rotten to the core” last week, he said last night: “Liberal Democrats lead the overwhelming case to ensure the House of Lords is elected and properly accountable to the British people.
“Starving the second chamber of peers who are committed to reforming the Lords would be a totally counterproductive thing to do. I would have thought the SNP understood this more than anyone, as a party which takes seats in Westminster with the key aim of breaking up the Union.”