Lords of misrule block the Tories at every turn

David Cameron is reluctant to create the hundreds of new Tory peers it would take overcome the Labour/Lib Dem majority in the House of Lords

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

A few days after the general election, I bumped into one of David Cameron’s longest-standing political allies, one of those who had helped him get selected for Witney back in 2000. I remarked that he must be delighted that Cameron had now won a majority. To my surprise, he glumly replied that it would only be significant if Cameron were to create a hundred new peers. Without them, he warned, the govern-ment’s most important measures would end up bogged down in the Lords, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined comfortably outnumber the Tories.

Now, normally when people urge the Prime Minister to create new peers it is because they hope that they will be on the list themselves. But this source was one of those rare Westminster beasts with no interest in a peerage and his fear is now being borne out. Since May, the government has lost more than 70 per cent of votes in the Lords. Just this week, the upper house has rejected plans for tax-credit reform even though it normally defers to the elected house where tax is concerned. A week earlier, the Lords decided that they understood what was in the Tory manifesto better than the Tories and defeated the government over subsidies to onshore windfarms. This happened in spite of the Salisbury Convention, which says that the Lords shouldn’t block manifesto commitments.

What is striking about the Lords’ behaviour is the eagerness with which they are picking fights with the government and the elected house. There is little the Tories can do to stop losing votes there. For Monday’s vote they turned out more of their peers than they have for a decade, and still lost. The frequency of these defeats is causing increasing irritation in Downing Street. One senior No. 10 figures fumes that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ‘treating the revising chamber as a legislative chamber’.

Traditionally, peers have been wary of full-blown confrontation with the government because they know that their legitimacy is questionable and they have no desire to spark a debate about whether or not the Lords should be abolished. But this has changed since May. The Liberal Democrat peers, of whom there are more than a hundred, don’t much care if they bring the whole place down. They regard the Lords as an absurd anachronism and are therefore happy to heighten the contradictions of having an unelected chamber in a 21st century parliament. These Lib Dem peers have been radicalised by the general election result. They feel that their party was taken for a ride by the Tories, who lured them into government and then destroyed them, and are determined to have their vengeance by whatever means possible.

Their behaviour is having a knock-on effect on Labour, who don’t want to be outflanked as the left-wing opposition to the Tories. There is also the Corbyn factor. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, the Tories hoped this would reduce their problem in the Lords. They believed that Labour peers appointed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would have little time for a leader from the hard left who had been such a thorn in New Labour’s side. But Labour peers have reacted rather differently to their new leader. The party’s travails in the Commons have made many of them feel that it is now their job to oppose the government. And there is no doubt that the Lords have been emboldened on tax credits by the sense that public opinion is on their side.

The issue of peer pressure is not going to go away. There’s little confidence in Tory circles that the government’s record on winning votes will improve. One of those involved in working out how to get legislation through the upper house says, despairingly: ‘I now assume we are going to lose every big vote down there.’ Short of flooding the place with new peers, it is hard to see what the short-term solution is. (I understand that the option of appointing a few dozen more peers has not been taken off the table, though Cameron is averse to such a move by temperament.) Indeed, inside government there is concern that if they talk too tough on Lords reform, they might have to do something dramatic and that could lead to a full-blown confrontation with the upper house, leading to legislative gridlock. The current government review into the Lords is as much about providing covering fire while Osborne works on a solution to his tax credit problem as it is about addressing any constitutional question.

In the medium term, part of the answer to getting the Lords to respect the will of the Commons must be more frankness from parties about what they intend to do if they gain office. If the Tories had a clearer mandate for what they are doing to tax credits, more peers would have had reservations about blocking the government’s agenda.

Meanwhile, Osborne has to prepare for next month’s autumn statement. His allies say that he will find some ways of softening the impact of the cuts but that he won’t draw back from the reform. The view in Downing Street is that there is ‘something structurally wrong with our economy’ which leads to welfare being so high and wages so low and that changing tax credits is the key to fixing that imbalance. It is certain is that Osborne’s tweaks to the tax credits package won’t be the ones peers voted for; the government is determined not to let the Lords dictate the terms of their surrender.

His supporters believe that, with a few changes, these tax credit reforms can pass and will come to be accepted by the electorate. They point out the way he tweaked the benefits cap with the introduction of a discretionary fund for local authorities, and the removal of child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers by means of a taper, and that both measures now enjoy widespread support.

The bigger challenge for the government, however, is to turn the national conversation back on to the importance of dealing with the deficit. The public will accept tough measures such as tax-credit reform only if they believe that balancing the books is imperative and that there is no alternative.

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  • William MacDougall

    So the Tories now face the same problem every Labour government faced, why does it only appear a problem now? How about thinking about Lords reform?

    • Terry Field

      Abolish it. it can be replaced by teams of codifying lawyers.

      • William MacDougall

        Of course correcting poor drafting by the other House when it does a poor job is, sadly, a necessary task. But the Lords are also an important check on Prime Ministerial dictatorship. Of course they have to give way in the end, and quickly on clear Manifesto commitments, but still that checking roll is essential if we are to remain democratic.

        • jeremy Morfey

          Indeed, what is being slipped in under the radar is for it to be mandatory to allow police access, without a warrant, to all our internet browsing habits, which can be analysed in a grand surveillance fishing operation, and anyone likely to cause trouble can find that “intent to do something illegal” be winkled out through clever and usually prejudicial interpretation of the data. Anything that could suggest paedophilia or terrorism is already exempt from fairly fundamental tenets of justice, such as Habeas Corpus and innocence until proven guilty. This could easily be extended to “other crimes”. I remember under New Labour how anti-terrorism laws were used against political hecklers and those who put their bins out on the wrong day. It would almost certainly be used by Revenue and Customs in a crack down on petty tax evasion, providing a scapegoat for the gross and often legalised avoidance by corporates in the trough with good lobbyists and access to special advisers.

          Don’t think we are spared if we have nothing to hide. Opposition to Single Gender “marriage” has already been singled out by Teresa May as evidence of Anti-British radical extremism, and I myself have been threatened with legal action by another contributor under anti-hate crime legislation for things I have written here, which are defined by many MPs as “homophobic”, but simply reiterate my definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

          Only the Lords stands in the way of this dreadful piece of legislation becoming law. There was nothing I could do democratically to oppose it.

  • Planet Vague

    All this hot air and excuses. How is the party of working people (to quote Cameron) going to bring the deficit down?

  • Jonathan Munday

    Reforming the Lords has been a minefield that no sensible PM has wanted to touch for 100 yrs.
    Abolish the Lords and replace it with a Federal UK parliament composed of representatives sent as delegates from four unicameral national parliaments. Give the Lords club privileges and speaking but not voting rights in the UK parliament to keep the best parts of the Lords as an advisory chamber and to keep the peers sweet for abolition.
    If the Commons considered legislation properly the first time it would not be necessary to do it twice and the system works well enough in Scotland.
    As the national parliaments would raise and spend their own taxes, this would give the SNP everything it wanted without its problems with the Bank of England but would give the SNP and Welsh Labour no excuse for failure.
    It would end the Lords problem, the Barnet formula, the West Lothian question, Scottish Independence, all in one neat solution.
    If Cameron wants a legacy, this would be quite a good one.

  • In order to restore to the House of Lords to its function of an effective revising chamber there
    are three problems to overcome:
    1. It is bloated – there are now far too many Peers;
    2. It is too partisan – stuffing it with failed or ex-politicians at every opportunity was
    always going to create problems for any government;
    3. It lacks the necessary expertise – its membership does not adequately reflect the evolving
    economic or social structure of 21st. Century Britain.

    An effective short term solution might be for the Commons to legislate to:
    i) Reduce the number of peers to a fixed level of, say, no more than half the number of MPs;
    ii) Get rid of the anachronistic religious and hereditary Peers;
    iii) After every General Election, adjust the political balance of the Upper Chamber to precisely reflect the political makeup of the House of Commons.

    In the longer term, the political element in the appointment of Peers should be removed
    completely, perhaps by instituting something like an independent Royal
    commission which would recommend potential members on the basis of their
    expertise in the economic, cultural, intellectual, judicial and international aspects
    of an evolving modern society.

    • smoke me a kipper

      HoL should be abolished and replaced with a second chamber elected on PR basis, with different constituency basis then HoC and at different times

  • Fenman

    Just abolish it. the HoL stands for much of what is wrong with Britain. It cannot be allowed to thwart the elected government, if we are to remain a democracy.

    • smoke me a kipper

      Since when was dictatorship of the least unpopular minority democracy?

      • Standish79

        Since this least-worst system of government failed to be replaced by anything less worse. In other words, nobody has come up with anything better, certainly nothing that you might perhaps to install by radical steps.

  • Dominic Stockford

    Has the government never heard of the Parliament Act? It throws all this nonsense out of the window.

  • Terry Field

    The Lords reflect the social absurdity of a nation largely composed of people blissfully aware that the imperial and post imperial dispensation, replete with ‘invisible earnings’ and resource legacies from the Golden period no longer exists.
    It is a world of raw competitive survival -or not. As the south of Europe is experiencing. As Italy is experiencing. To see dangerous decline, rot and potential social collapse, take a trip over the channel, where the socialist levelling dispensation is on its last gasp.

  • marvin

    Can any knowledgeable person answer this question? Many businessmen belong to a Brotherhood called the ‘Masons’. To belong to this brotherhood, I am told that each has to swear allegiance to the crown and country. Now if the EU is continue as it promises, to reduce the UK to a mere state within a European Federation, and to govern all states from one central state in Brussels – does that mean that all Mason members are Eurosceptic? Or that they will denounce their allegiance to the Brotherhood?

    • smoke me a kipper

      if the crown agrees with UK being a subject state of the EU, then there is no conflict

  • gunnerbear

    I wonder if the most eminent and respected author of the article, may well have been, most respectfully advised to take this sort of thinking into consideration… http://constitution-unit.com/2015/10/22/the-lords-and-tax-credits-fact-and-myth/ ..prior to penning their article.

  • smoke me a kipper

    Bearing in mind that the Tories won a majority of parliamentary seats on the basis of winning a minority 24% of available votes, it is just as wel there is a chick on their power. Having said that, it is regrettable that in our ‘democracy’ we have the rely on an unelected chamber to moderate dictatorship of the least unpopular minority.

    I would advocate a second chamber elected on the basis of proportional representation and with a different constituency base. Larger constituencies with four representatives. One reoresentative elected every year so that 25% are elected every year.

    • I’ve always found it curious that people who are perfectly willing to acknowleege that an elected commons doesn’t work as advertised also advocate an elected Lords.

      I’d rather have unelected competents than elected incompetents and so I feel the answer to the upper house problem lies outside the electoral system

      • smoke me a kipper

        What makes you think the unelected are competent?

        • Your question is a trap as it requires me to either agree or disagree with a generalisation. Some unelected people are competent, some aren’t. Same goes for the elected. The difference is that the way party machines work means that the wrong characteristics are rewarded in an electoral system. Getting selected for a safe seat, then climbing the ranks in parliament favours the toadies, those who can tow the party line.

        • jeremy Morfey

          Almost certainly a lot of them aren’t, any more than the elected ones for reasons The Prez puts very well.

          What is important is that they have got there a different way – through scrutiny for merit by Royal Commission, rather than by party appointment. Any book-keeper knows when balancing figures that you get a more rigorous result when it is confirmed by adding up two different ways – any discrepancy requires further investigation: precisely the function of a revising and scrutinising chamber.

          • smoke me a kipper

            I don’t object to a second chamber, indeed the opposite. The second chamber should be more powerful, because the best safeguard we have against the abuse of power is to devolve and dilute power with checks and balances. I do believe our second chamber should be elected by the voters not appointed or based on heritage as at present. The electoral system and constituency base should be different from HoC so that it does not become a carbon copy.

          • jeremy Morfey

            I would like to know how this can be done.

            The Party List system used to elect MEPs (the Euro House of Lords, since it is a revising chamber, not one that actually makes laws) is even worse than the FPTP that elects MPs, since it denies constituents even a personal relationship with the chosen parties’ representatives. Five of the seven seats in my region were faits accomplis, leaving a contest between a third UKIP and a third Tory, and one of a second New Labour, a Lib Dem or a Green. In the end all seven we got were rightwingers.

            The system used to appoint the EU Commission (the Euro equivalent of the House of Commons, since this does make laws and imposes them on member states after being rubberstamped by MEPs) is done by patronage from heads of member governments, combining just about the worst of all worlds.

            I must say that for as long as the royal succession is benign and predictable for the rest of this century, since there is now an heir and a spare born in 2013 and 2015 respectively, appointment by Royal Commission seems more reliable than duplicating an electoral system that is so readily perverted.

          • smoke me a kipper

            In the UK your constituent representative could be elected as now to the HoC. The second chamber could be elected by PR to a different timetable and based on different constituencies from the HoC. There should be a detailed review to examine options. Party Lists are not a good idea. If practical it would be good to have only a weak link between the candidates and the Political Parties. Whipping should be banned from the second chamber. In order to stand for election a candidate should have to publish a statement explaining their values and why they want to be elected. If they can obtain a requisite number of signatures (for e.g. 10% of their constituency population) they should then receive limited state funding to stand in the election.

          • smoke me a kipper

            But appointment by Royal Commission effectively means by patronage of the PM. So though a ‘nice’ idea, it doesn’t work in practice

    • Bertie

      So let me get this straight – you think it unreasonable for a party that won a bona fide majority at the last election to pass laws (it’s irrelevant what actual percentage of the vote all things told, and what percentage didnt bother to turn out) but that it’s perfectly acceptable for 100+ LIbDems to hold so much sway when the country so convincingly rejected them at the last election, the one prior to that, and the one before that…

      Not forgetting that this majority was won despite the Boundaries being so in favour of Labour for the last 20+ odd years.

      Personally I’d go with the HoC being severely reduced in numbers. The sizes of the Constituencies need to be revamped and of similar weighting. Cut the number of MP down by 500 odd in my view. 1 MP per 500,000-550,000 head of population, so circa 120 MP’s only.We certainly don’t need the current masses especially as half of them don’t turn up regularly,and the other half get told what to do by the EU.

      • smoke me a kipper

        Even if you discount the sitting on the sofa party, the Conservatives fell well short of winning a majority of votes. The fact they have one in the HoC just demonstrates that whatever the merits of our electoral system democratic representation is not one of them

        • Bertie

          The boundaries favour Labour, and have done for at least last 15 years or so. The fact that the Conservatives got a majority at all was a miracle – they were clearly the larger party.

          if you want to talk about democracy – the SNP with the paltry number of votes it secured in Scotland shoulnt be getting 56 seats. The Labour party and Libs should have fewer, especially Labour.UKIP far far more than its sole representative.

          A proper democratic representation would see the Tories on far fewer(still alot more than Labour however) and a workable majority with UKIP who, according to their votes, should have had 86 odd MPs!!!!

          I agree the electoral systems needs some tweaking..but its not so that we can get an alliance of the idiotic left governing.

      • smoke me a kipper

        Reducing the number of MPs is a recipe for the abuse of power by a political elite. We need more MPS not fewer in order to hold the Executive to account

  • flydlbee

    If they finally decide to create lots of new peers, then I am available four days a week and I’m prepared to cover the occasional weekend if the rate is good.

  • HMP 635967 Fred West

    Few people in the West seem to be able to see further than their nose these days. Tories made little objection when Blair was manufacturing Lords at a rate a Chinese sweatshop would have envied – and now it is biting them on the ar$e. It seems in our day and age, we’re more interested in the immediate than ever and almost nobody (except those old Bilderbergs pulling the strings) appreciates the law of cause and effect or considers the long game.