A discredited house

By Mike Phipps

What is to be done with the House of Lords? Every week a new revelation further tarnishes the reputation of this already discredited chamber.

Last week, it was the announcement that Boris Johnson was planning to appoint a number of prominent Brexit supporters to the unelected upper house. These include Frank Field and Gisela Stuart, as well as Ian Austin and John Woodcock, whose nominations became known earlier this year.

This week, the Lords suffered a further blow to its reputation when the Intelligence and Security Committee report into Russian interference in UK political life said it had concerns about links between the chamber and wealthy Russian oligarchs. “It is notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state,” the report said.

Maverick MP Frank Field might seem an odd choice for a peerage, but the former Labour MP for Birkenhead has long been more popular with the Tories than with his own party. He has long supported restricting abortion rights and is socially conservative on other issues. He reportedly made a secret visit to 10 Downing Street in November 1990 to offer Margaret Thatcher advice on the challenge to her leadership. She repaid the favour by later attending the party he held to celebrate thirty years of being an MP.

In 2009, his unsuccessful attempt to become House of Commons Speaker drew more support from Tory ranks than Labour. In 2016, he wrote in the Guardian that he supported Brexit because it would help control immigration into Britain and limit the demands it made on the public services. In 2018, he was one of only four Labour MPs to vote against a rebel amendment on the Brexit bill which aimed to force the British government to join a customs union with the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He subsequently lost a vote of no confidence in his constituency and resigned the Labour whip, getting decisively beaten by Labour when he stood as the candidate for the Birkenhead Social Justice Party in the 2019 general election. Now Prime Minister Johnson has rewarded his efforts with a place in the House of Lords.

Gisela Stuart is another ex-Labour MP being elevated. Always on the right of the Party, she astonished Labour colleagues as the only Labour MP to support the re-election of US president George W. Bush in 2004, as a win for his Democrat opponent, she claimed, would be a victory for terrorism. Despite her own constituency supporting Remain, she chaired the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum and it is for that reason she is getting her place on the red leather benches.

Boris Johnson’s earlier decision to give peerages to another two former Labour MPs, John Woodcock and Ian Austin is more controversial. The two are real nonentities, whose principal claim to fame was their stance of unremitting hostility throughout Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Their promotion into the Lords looks like a continuation of the establishment drive to delegitimize the former Labour leader.

Austin stuck close to Gordon Brown when Labour was in office. He was embroiled in the parliamentary expenses scandal at the end of Brown’s term, accused by the Daily Telegraph of ‘flipping’ his second home and splitting his claim for stamp duty on it over two financial years in order to maximise his allowance. Out of office, Austin called for the fingerprinting of immigrants, reducing their benefit entitlements, putting them at the bottom of the housing list and charging foreigners for NHS treatment. A stalwart of the Labour Friends of Israel, he was forced to apologise to a Palestinian rights group in 2012 after falsely accusing them of holocaust denial. In 2016, he was reprimanded by the Commons Speaker for shouting abuse at Jeremy Corbyn who was criticising the 2003 invasion of Iraq during the debate on the Chilcot Report.

Austin walked out of the Labour Party in February 2019 and was appointed by Prime Minister May as a trade envoy to Israel. At Labour’s 2019 Party Conference, he drove along the seafront with a large mobile billboard saying Jeremy Corbyn was unfit for office. Days before the general election, he called for a Tory vote and actively campaigned for one. He has been duly rewarded.

John Woodcock’s peerage is more shocking. The former MP for Barrow and Furness lost the Labour whip in 2018 following allegations of sexual harassment.  He has been a keen supporter of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, which has been marked by appalling civilian casualties resulting from Saudi air strikes. He has also heaped praise on the repressive regime of Turkey’s President Erdogan as tolerant and progressive and was the only Labour MP not to condemn Turkish war crimes.

In January 2019, Woodcock abstained in a parliamentary vote of no confidence against May’s government and in November called for a Conservative vote, denouncing Jeremy Corbyn as a security risk to Britain. His peerage also looks like a pay-off from Johnson.

Stuffing the second chamber with these deeply flawed individuals degrades Britain’s democracy. Not many countries allow their prime ministers to appoint half their parliament, as the UK does. Governments of all stripes have been reluctant to tackle this anomaly in the past as it’s a source of unaccountable power wielded by an already over-powerful prime minister, a useful source of patronage. In the past the power to appoint peers has been used to reward donors and cronies alike.

A century ago, Prime Minister David Lloyd George openly sold peerages for his own personal enrichment. The practice was made illegal in 1925, but there was often an uncanny coincidence in subsequent decades between the individuals who donated to a winning party and those who later received a peerage. The issue should have been killed dead by New Labour legislation that required the names of donors to political parties to be made public. But in 2006, several men nominated for life peerages by Prime Minister Tony Blair were revealed to have loaned large amounts of money to the Labour Party. What became known as the “cash for peerages” scandal led to a long investigation by the Metropolitan Police, but a lack of concrete evidence meant no charges were brought.

To its credit, Blair’s government in its first term did get rid of the most glaringly undemocratic aspect of the House of Lords, by abolishing the hundreds of hereditary peers who had the power to sit and vote in the Upper house. Getting rid of this feudal relic – overwhelmingly Conservative, elitist, largely inactive and unrelated to any personal merit of the individuals concerned– was straightforward. But even here, to speed the passage of the legislation through the Lords itself, Blair agreed to reprieve 92 of the more active peers. Cynics might say that the only hereditary peers who were excluded were the ones who never showed up in the first place.

It was intended that this first step would be followed by a much more comprehensive reform of the composition and functions of the House of Lords. But Blair gave the job of chairing the commission into how this would be done to Lord Wakeham, a notorious political fiver from the previous Conservative government, with the specific remit that any proposed new chamber should not be given new powers. Wakeham came up with a number of solutions, all of which proposed a chamber with the same minor powers. The proposals differed on how much of the chamber should be elected, but they all agree it should be a small minority.

A White Paper embodying a version of these proposals had to be withdrawn when it was greeted with derision by MPs in 2001. Nothing happened until 2003, when a free vote in the House of Lords supported an appointed second chamber, pretty much as it is now, and the Commons, again on a free vote, voted down every option put before it – abolition, fully appointed, fully elected, 50% elected, 50% appointed, 60-40, 40-60, etc. All were rejected.

This stalemate continued until 2007 when new free votes were held in each chamber. The Lords again voted for an all-appointed chamber, while this time the House of Commons narrowly supported an all-elected one. The vote was undermined, however, by the fact that some MPs had deliberately voted for an elected Upper House, in order to ensure nothing happened, as doing so would put them on collision course with the House of Lords itself, leading to stalemate. And nothing is precisely what happened.

Lords reform was a key part of the Coalition Agreement, hurriedly put together by representatives of the Lib Dem and Tory leaderships after the 2010 general election produced a hung parliament. But the Tories were never keen and when Nick Clegg’s bill to have 80% of the chamber elected – far more radical than anything that Tony Blair was prepared to countenance – reached its second reading in 2012, Conservative backbenchers made it clear to their whips that they would not support it any further. The leadership caved in and Cameron had to break the news to Clegg that his reform was a dead duck. Clegg retaliated by withdrawing support from the Tories’ proposal to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons down by fifty, so some good came out of this sorry tale of treachery.

Lords reform has been stuck ever since. There is no consensus between the two houses, nor across the parliamentary parties, not even within each of the main parties. Labour’s internal divisions on the issue, evident in the Blair years, were not new: the same disputes took place under Wilson in the 1960s.

There are essentially four possible solutions to the problem of the Upper House: retain, remove, replace or reform. No socialist or democrat can seriously argue for retaining the House of Lords as it is – unelected, unaccountable, unrepresentative and illegitimate. Traditionally the radial left called for abolition, although this has not been Labour policy for many decades. Having a one-chamber parliament would probably force the House of Commons to carry out its functions better, particularly scrutiny of the government of the day, which is rarely performed very effectively.

Abolition would also remove an obstacle in the way of a majority Labour government carrying out its programme. But critics of this approach would say that this is not an issue, as the House of Lords traditionally operates the “doctrine of the mandate,” refusing to block a policy of any governing party as long as it was signalled in the party’s election manifesto. Meanwhile a second chamber, in which the government does not have a majority, is realistically the only way wilder Tory policies can currently be thwarted. Removing it would destroy a vital check over an increasingly authoritarian government.

That leaves two options: reform – marginally adjusting the powers of the House of Lords while keeping it as an essentially revising chamber, at the same time as improving its democratic credentials, by electing some or all of it; or replace – a wholly new chamber with new powers and constituted with its own democratic mandate in competition to that of the House of Commons.

In 2017’s general election manifesto, Labour called for a constitutional convention to consider a democratically elected second chamber, a response to the real concern that an unelected House of Lords could be a serious obstacle to a radical Corbyn government. But an elected chamber could also have this power. Moreover, if it were elected at a different time to the dominant House of Commons, when the Party’s election machine might not be in full swing, and if it were elected by a more proportional method, as previous reform proposals have argued, the likely result would again be a chamber in which no party had overall control, but now claiming a bigger mandate to obstruct the elected government, because it too was elected.

And this is the central conundrum of House of Lords reform. The second chamber ought to be elected in this day and age. But an elected chamber would have a justifiable claim to greater powers than the mere one year delay that the current House can impose on legislation. A more powerful second chamber could be a serious obstacle to a government based on a majority in the House of Commons, so no government is likely to make democratising – and therefore legitimising – the second chamber a priority. As for abolition, it would be highly unlikely than any cross-party convention would support this.

In its 2019 general election manifesto, Labour committed “immediately to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of Labour’s preferred option of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, but we also believe that the people must be central to historic political changes.”

This interesting idea was first developed under Ed Miliband to act as a counterweight to the centrifugal tendencies implicit in regional and national devolution, especially in Scotland. It would transform the House of Lords from a chamber of largely ageing, metropolitan political placemen – over 40% of its members come from London and the southeast and the average age is 69 – into something much more representative of the whole of the UK.

In a 2017 Daily Mirror article, former deputy Labour Prime Minister Lord Prescott said the second chamber “shouldn’t be a retirement home for politicians”, nor a “private club for pals of party leaders.” He publicly disagreed with Labour policy that the second chamber be elected, as this would undermine the sovereignty of the House of Commons, but he supported the idea of a chamber that represented the different regions and nations of the UK. Instead he wanted it to be “made up from people indirectly elected to local councils or, better still, regional assemblies and national parliaments.”

Another persistent idea is that, as long as the Commons continues to be elected by the first past the post system, the Lords should be elected by proportional representation, using closed regional lists, rather like the European Parliament. This might make for a more legitimate outcome, but it is unlikely to change the personnel much. Already the main party leaders appoint members roughly in proportion to the share of the vote their party got at the previous general election to the House of Commons, so the individuals rewarded would be largely the same as those chosen on closed party lists by the same party leaders.

There is no shortage of ideas for reform. But there is a complete lack of political will to deal with this anomaly. Even if we had a Labour government, past experience shows that sorting this out could use up a lot of valuable parliamentary time, better spent on transformative social and economic policies. Public support for Lords reform is broad, but not particularly deep: most voters want it, but don’t rank it as a high priority. But then that’s true of most constitutional issues.

It would be simple, however, to remove the last hereditary peers and the Anglican bishops, a hangover from feudalism, and one which privileges one faith over all others, which is inconsistent with the idea of a multicultural society. Yet a Tory government is unlikely to do even this much, let alone embark on a thorough-going democratisation process.

Until then, we are stuck with a half-parliament of patronage, whose members use their title and location to court Russian oligarchs, and where total political nonentities like Woodcock, Austin, Stuart and others reap the paltry rewards of unprincipled opportunism.