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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 1. The Origins to 1937: Proposals Deferred- Book One: The Origins to 1911- Book Two: 1911–1937

Peter Raina

One of the peculiarities of British history is the development of a constitution headed by the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament. This system emerged to become a balance of democracy, efficiency and moderation that became the admiration of the world.
The contribution of the House of Lords to this balance is all too often overlooked. In this richly documented two-volume work, the author offers a detailed examination of the Lords’ constitutional position and the predicament they faced as the Commons increasingly championed popular rule. With a landowning membership based on the hereditary principle, the Lords struggled to adapt. Yet, valiant attempts were made. The author gives us the first thorough, full-length history of the Lords’ ambiguous responses to the new democracy and the stream of arguments, proposals and bills raised for reform of their House.
Drawing on speeches, letters, reports and memoranda of the times (some never previously published), the book brings to life the inner wranglings and arresting personalities, the hopes and anxieties and the sheer frustrations of a House divided between entrenched interests and idealism, and often threatened by progressives outside.
The two books in Volume One cover the period from the medieval origins of the House of Lords and proceed, through many tumultuous events, to the outbreak of the Second World War.
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Chapter 37: Labour Lords: Arthur Ponsonby and others, 1923


← ii. 310 | ii. 311 → CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Labour Lords: Arthur Ponsonby and others, 1923

After the Representation of the People Act of 1918, it became increasingly clear that the working and middle classes would form a substantial component of the House of Commons. That the new democratic contingent had little love for the hereditary House of Lords was abundantly displayed at the Labour party conferences of January and September 1918. The Labour delegates confirmed their opposition to any form of second chamber, and pledged to abolish the House of Lords altogether. Philip Williamson has made a detailed analysis of this subject in his extensive study ‘The Labour Party and the House of Lords, 1918–1931’.1 This study is our chief source. The principal message of the Labour party document Labour and the New Social Order (1918) was that a second chamber was unnecessary. What counted was the peoples’ chamber, the House of Commons. This was the voice of the radical wing of the Labour party.

The moderate section of the party, led by J. Ramsay MacDonald,2 thought differently. A second chamber, it was felt, might serve some useful purpose, and some kind of adjustment with the existing House of Lords was constitutionally necessary. MacDonald realized that the Labour party might come to power, and there was no way that a Labour government could ignore the House of Lords. In his Parliament and Revolution (1919) and Parliament and Democracy (1920) the future Labour prime minister...

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