In Reforming the House of Lords, Labour Should Learn From the German Bundesrat

John Cordner interviews academics and Labour peers to discover what Labour can learn from the workings of Germany's Bundesrat in devising its second chamber of "nations and regions".

The Labour Party has been tight-lipped on its proposed House of Lords reform. Still, it is understood that it has been delegated to ex-PM Gordon Brown as part of a series of reforms and recommendations on the UK constitution. What this article does is discuss the option for a reformed body I think Labour will proceed with based on research and interviews with academics and peers in the Lords. 

Labour’s Commission on the UKs Future, released on the 5th of December, states that “The House of Lords should be replaced with a new second chamber of Parliament: an Assembly of the Nations and Regions.” This commitment has been pledged in some form by Labour since 2015. Consistently Labour research papers focus on the German second chamber, the Bundesrat, for inspiration and ideas for the UK Assembly of Nations and Regions, but what is the Bundesrat? And what can we learn from the Bundesrat to help replace “the best daycare centre for the elderly in London” while simultaneously decentralising decision-making and strengthening local democracy?

What is the Bundesrat? 

The Bundesrat is the upper house of the parliament of Germany. It is made up of representatives of the 16 states of Germany and is responsible for representing the interests of the states in the federal legislative process. The representatives are leaders of the state governments that serve a dual role in the Bundesrat and can number from 3 representatives for the smallest states to 6 for the largest.

This regional representation is why the Bundesrat is a relevant model for a UK Assembly of Nations and Regions. The Bundesrat has the power to review and propose changes to legislation passed by the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, and can veto legislation with a majority.

An institutional link between the regions and Westminster

In the UK, we have a mixture of regional representation with asymmetric devolution across the country. The devolved nations have assemblies, and in England, there is a mix of metropolitan boroughs, unitary authorities and two-tier counties, with 10 areas also being part of combined authorities, but all of these lack direct links with Westminster. 

One of the main strengths of the Bundesrat is that it has these links between leadership in the regions and the national government, creating a platform for debate and negotiations between regional and national political interests. While regional politics continues, it is still part of the same decision-making process as national politics.

David Cameron, after the Scottish Independence Referendum, talked about a UK Council that would involve regular meetings between London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, but there is no constitutional procedure for this. The 4 governments meet inconsistently, at Westminster’s whim, and nothing really comes of their few meetings. 

Dr Peter Eckersley considers constitutionalising regional engagement crucial to the UK’s future as a union.

“It would certainly help the UK function better because it would prevent antagonism  - a lot of these important constitutional and sectoral issues would be ironed out before they reach the debating chamber. Because at the moment Westminster decides. Look at the opinion polls on Scottish, Welsh and Irish independence. It’s quite startling, and if people want to hold the UK together, there needs to be this kind of engagement.”

True Regional representation

In the UK, we have a second chamber that does not represent the country because it is not designed to do so. Through the appointments process and hereditary peers, we’ve ended up with a house that draws most of its membership from London and the home counties. Baroness Bryan is a member of the House of Lords based in and from Scotland:

“It’s totally London dominated; the whole structure is London dominated. If you live in London, you get a daily allowance. If you live in Scotland, you get the same allowance.” 

The second chamber of regional representatives would provide a more balanced and democratic perspective. In the Bundesrat, regional representatives can scrutinise national policy and bring their territorial perspectives and concerns to the centre of Germany. 

Territorial representatives in the Bundesrat pool their powers together to achieve regional goals and can have real influence by being in the legislature. In the UK, we have had metro-mayors such as Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham working together to push Westminster but have yet to see real progress, unlike in Germany, where territories influence legislation.

In our interview, Professor Dan Hough gave the example of states like Hamburg and Rostock, which were large port cities and regions with heavy industry that lost much of their industry to globalisation after the 1970s. These states formed a coalition to legislate for funding for regeneration projects that have been massively beneficial to those states. In Hamburg, national and regional cooperation has unlocked funding to build modern infrastructure and encourage investment that allows the city to thrive economically today, especially in the Hafencity

This occurred because of cooperation and the ability to represent regional interests that work with the national government to find practical solutions to regional problems. This does not occur in the UK because there is no institutional protection for the regional interests, effectively leaving Westminster to pick and choose projects. The dysfunction and logical inconsistencies with the Conservative Levelling Up program illustrates this, with Conservative controlled regions receiving far more funding than non-Conservative controlled ones.

Coalitions like this are common because each state's representatives vote as a block despite partisan divides. Different interest groups may trade votes to get their interests voted through, e.g. this Northern regeneration seeking coalition may vote in favour of subsidies on the mostly southern automobile industry that has no impact on them, in exchange for votes from the southern automobile coalition for their port regeneration. 

How do we get there?

In our interview, Lord Campbell-Savours set out a broad timeline, which would require a two-term Labour government similar to 1997 and 2001. In Campbell-Savours’ words, “The first government would deal with the numbers, and the second government would deal with the powers”. 

The first term would deal with the numbers, getting them down from an unmanageable current membership of 807 to around 450, in the process removing hereditary peers and bishops, keeping on those through a selection process that “takes in age, regional representation and preparedness to contribute to the working of the house”. The second term would move forward with regional elections, conducted indirectly on a list system based on electoral counties and regions.

This article was written with the help of Baroness Bryan of Partick, Baron Campbell-Savours of Allerdale, Professor of Politics Dan Hough at the University of Sussex and Dr Peter Eckersley, Senior Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University. 

John Cordner is a freelance journalist specialising in constitutional politics, who has been published by the Irish Post, the Institution for Welsh Affairs, and the Liverpool Echo. He is also a Labour Party member. He tweets at @JohnCordner01.

Header image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

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