Expert Blog

The state of the Lords

We often write about transport policy on this blog – but what about the place where that policy is decided? The Houses of Parliament are the locus of British politics. Their composition, practices and bylaws matter for us all. They could also become particularly controversial in the next few years.

The controversy has been stewing for years, although it was exemplified by the Government’s recent appointments to the House of Lords. You probably heard about them at the time: 45 new peers, including 26 Conservatives, 11 Lib Dems and 8 Labour sorts, with plenty of former MPs, party advisers and donors among them. It brought the second chamber up to 826 members.

This is the largest the Lords has been since 1999, when Tony Blair kicked out a few hundred hereditary peers. It has swollen in size by 17 per cent over the past five years alone. Demand for ermine robes must be soaring.

But it’s not just the size of the second chamber that’s problematic, but also its makeup. Consider those 11 new Lib Dem peers. That’s three more people than their eight MPs. And they’re adding to the 101 existing Lib Dems peers. Which means that the party’s unelected strength in the Lords is now 14 times greater than its elected strength in the Commons.

It doesn’t stop with the Lib Dems. The SNP doesn’t have any real presence in the Lords – because, on principle, they don’t accept peerages – despite now being the third largest party in the Commons. And what about UKIP? What about the Greens? The second chamber isn’t particularly reflective of how people vote.

This goes against what David Cameron has said. Back in July, he told reporters that ‘it is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons’.

It also goes against what Cameron has promised. In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservatives pledged to ‘work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords’. This was watered down somewhat in their latest manifesto, but the general thrust of the policy remained: ‘While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament.’

So why hasn’t the Prime Minister reformed the Lords as he promised? There are two answers. The first is that governments are always susceptible to loading the Lords with their favourites – hence why the number of Conservative peers has increased by 67 over the past five years. The second is that Cameron has already tried to reform the Lords – and failed. 91 Tory MPs, led by Jesse Norman, rebelled against legislation to introduce a partially-elected second chamber in 2012.

The upshot is a House of Lords that is ever more unbalanced, and in ways that the Conservatives may come to rue. Their 252 peers are outweighed by the combined 332 Labour and Lib Dem peers. That’s a fine recipe for discord and deadlock.

If the Prime Minister is scared of his backbenchers’ disapproval, there are other reforms he could implement – ones that don’t involve bringing elections to the Lords. Norman himself has approved some of them. The case may grow stronger as this Parliament proceeds.

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