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The chequered history of House of Lords reform

In the first book in the Westminster Mysteries series, Will Duncan attempts to pass a House of Lords Reform Bill. He wants to introduce a new law that would mean some of the Lords are elected by the public.


In real life, Lords have only ever been selected, never elected. Here we’ll find out which Prime Ministers have tried to change that and how far they got.


Harold Wilson, 1968

Harold Wilson was a Labour Prime Minister in the 1960s. His government created a Bill to make changes to the Houses of Lords and introduced it to Parliament in December 1968.


The Bill proposed several changes to the House of Lords. This included removing the voting rights of hereditary peers and excluding their heirs from the House completely. It also would have forced Lords to retire after the age of 72. Under the plans, they would have been required to attend at least one third of the House’s sittings in order to secure their right to vote.


The Bill faced much opposition in Parliament. There was hostility towards the Bill by Tories in the House of Lords. And in the Commons, an alliance was formed between a prominent Tory and a prominent Labour MP who both opposed the Bill.


In April 1969, Wilson withdrew the Bill. After just four months, the attempt at reform was a total failure and none of the proposals were passed.


Tony Blair, 2007

At the very end of Tony Blair’s time in power, his party was trying to put through House of Lords reform.


In June 2007 they held two informal votes in Parliament on changes to the House of the Lords. The first vote proposed having an 80 per cent elected House. This vote passed with a big majority in favour. The second vote was on whether to make the House of Lords 100 per cent elected and that too unexpectedly passed with a big majority.


But at the end of June, Blair resigned as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown, the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over as Prime Minister immediately.


A year later, Brown announced that he was planning new House of Lords reform that would make the chamber 100 per cent elected. By 2010, no Bill had been presented to Parliament to consider. Brown lost the election in 2010 to the Conservative candidate, David Cameron, and with it all chances of Labour achieving their reform plans.



David Cameron, 2012

In June 2012, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, finalised a draft Bill for House of Lords reform.


The Bill was heavily supported by Cameron’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Clegg was the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and the pair had gone into coalition together after the Conservatives failed to win a clear majority at a general election. Although both parties had promised House of Lords reform in their election manifestos, many people say that Clegg more passionately believed in it. The division between the two parties was to prove problematic later on.


The Bill passed its first reading in the House of Commons. It proposed to allow for 120 elected members of the House of Lords and 30 appointed members. The Labour Party promised to support the Bill if it was put to a referendum. David Cameron refused.


At the Bill’s second reading, 90 Conservative MPs voted against it, along with the Labour Party MPs opposing some points.


Facing mounting opposition from his backbench MPs, David Cameron decided to drop the Bill. In September 2012, only three months after the Bill’s introduction, the government announced they were dropping it.


Inspiration for Westminster Mysteries

The eagle-eyed might have noticed similarities between Cameron and Clegg’s attempt at Lords reform and Will Duncan’s. In the Westminster Mysteries, Will Duncan is also in an uneasy coalition with his Deputy, Chris Elliot. The pair plan to pass House of Lords reform together and, like the real Cameron and Clegg, they face opposition from other parties and their own.


However, Cameron and Clegg were forced to abandon their Bill early on. Duncan and Elliot have already got further with their Reform Bill than any other Prime Minister in history.


Get stuck into the Westminster Mysteries series now to find out whether Will Duncan can keep his House of Lords Reform Bill alive.