The news announced last week that there will be no immediate ‘reform of the Lords’ in the near-future passed by relatively unnoticed amidst the ongoing ricochet from the result of the US Presidential Election, but another never-ending issue – Brexit – was cited as the excuse. Of course, delays are nothing new when it comes to reforming the Upper House, and even if there are far more than the required peers to fill it, at least it’s known how many holes will; something to do with 4,000 in Blackburn, Lancashire, apparently.
Anyway, considering the fact that there are now a staggering 812 sitting Lords (compared to 650 serving MPs), it’s interesting to note the Upper House for many centuries consisted of around just 50 members. George III changed all that by creating endless peerages to ensure his support in one chamber where he couldn’t always guarantee it in the other at especially perilous times for the monarchy. However, the pre-eminent position the Lords once held over the Commons diminished as the nineteenth century progressed; the last serving Prime Minister to sit in the Lords was the Marquess of Salisbury, whose final term in office ended in 1902.
The last successful attempt by the Lords to reassert its seniority over the Commons came in 1909, when it rejected Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George’s so-called ‘People’s Budget’; its main objection was the proposed landowner’s tax, which came as no surprise when the Lords consisted largely of Tory gentry. A furious Lloyd George never forgot the rejection and when the Liberals were re-elected twice in 1910, PM Herbert Henry Asquith was determined to clip the wings of the Lords; a bill to do so was strengthened by the threat of George V creating enough Liberal peers to override Conservative opposition, and the Parliament Act of 1911 effectively abolished the ability of the Lords to veto major government legislation again.
The next big change to come to the House of the Lords was Harold Macmillan’s Life Peerages Act of 1958; in a way, the Act was Supermac’s response to stated Labour demands to either abolish the Lords or create a wholly elected Upper House. This extension of patronage on the part of a Prime Minister gave him a previously unprecedented power to manufacture a favourable balance in the chamber by creating life peers, a relatively easier option than the increasingly-rare creation of hereditary peerages. The Act also enabled female peers to sit in the Lords for the first time, and the new life peers were able to join the bishops and judges whose well-established place there was already life-only.
Gradually, hereditary peers began to be outnumbered, the first such challenge to their supremacy they’d ever received, and new non-royal hereditary peerages higher than a baronetcy were few and far between in the second half of the twentieth century; ironically, the most recent to be created was in 1984, an earldom awarded to none other than Harold Macmillan.
Every post-1945 Labour Government has loudly proclaimed Lords reform to be a necessity, yet many leading Labour critics of the chamber, such as Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, have happily accepted life peerages once retired from the Commons. The recent example of Shami Chakrabarti, the socialist social justice warrior allegedly promised the peerage she was awarded even before her report into Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism, highlights these double standards once again. For all his faults, at least Tony Benn fought to disclaim the peerage he inherited in order to remain in the Lower House. And it is the Labour Party to whom the Lords owes its current shape; Tony Blair’s expulsion of all but 92 hereditary peers from the Upper House in 1999 (A consequence of Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto) has been followed by his successors swamping the chamber with appointed cronies intended to ease the passage of bills through Parliament.
There were over a thousand peers eligible to sit in the Lords before Blair’s 1999 reforms cut numbers down to 669, yet numbers have swelled since due to the cynical manner in which life peerages are awarded. David Cameron created on average 41 life peers a year during his premiership, mostly what former Speaker of the Commons Betty Boothroyd has referred to as ‘lobby fodder’, and in his first twelve months as Prime Minister had created an outrageous 117. This tactic didn’t necessarily favour an easy passage for Coalition legislation, nor did it help during the brief spell he had as head of a solely Conservative Government, when the abundance of Lib Dem peers in comparison to the party’s MPs successfully scuppered some of the more swingeing proposals in George Osborne budgets.
As the overcrowding of the Lords by life peers has shown, the House of Lords is viewed by governments as a convenient way of increasing their numbers when it comes to crucial votes, and the elected chamber that most reformers usually call for would probably be just as bad, consisting of yet more party toadies submitted by the party machine. After all, we already have an elected Commons and few find that satisfactory. At its best, the Lords can often keep the government of the day in check and sometimes comes across as the kindly uncle to the Commons’ mean-minded father figure. Of the three main parties, the Tories currently have 255 sitting members in the Lords, Labour have 206 and the Lib Dems 104. Add the 182 crossbench representatives and it’s clear why a Conservative Government would dread the reaction any especially punitive bill will receive once it reaches the Lords.
Yes, reform is required, though not an elected chamber. The power of a Prime Minister to carry on creating life peers unchecked should be severely restricted and those already in there should be forced to serve no more than perhaps a decade before stepping down. A second chamber is certainly needed, though nobody appears happy with the one we’ve got – albeit for very different reasons.
© The Editor