Politics and the peerage

You’ll never get politics out of the Lords, and nor should you. The problem isn’t including politics — it’s excluding voters

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The House of Lords: not all that much more democratic than it looks. UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0.

Lords appointments have been something of a (slow-burning and highly secondary) theme over the past few months. A number of Boris Johnson’s appointments have raised eyebrows. Notably, the Lords will now include Claire Fox — a former supporter of the IRA’s terror campaign who remains unrepentant, and whose inclusion remains unexplained and suspect. A number of Jeremy Corbyn’s final nominations were rejected. And today, Keir Starmer’s choice of peers has also attracted controversy.

The appointment of Claire Fox is unusually egregious. Consistent commitment to our democratic process seems a pretty minimal requirement for life membership of our Parliament. (Even a show of repentance would be something.) But there’s nothing new about prime ministers appointing legislators-for-life for unedifying reasons. 58% of Margaret Thatcher’s appointments to the Lords were Conservatives, even in a chamber still hereditary-dominated and Tory-skewed. Controversy periodically dogged Blair’s Lords appointments. The speed at which the Coalition expanded the House made experts tear their hair out.

None of this is surprising. The House of Lords ultimately plays second fiddle to the Commons. But it’s still a lawmaking body, and governments often make concessions to it. Lords appointments are a huge source of power — but peers don’t get anything like the same scrutiny as MPs. Voters tend, in the main, to forget or at least deprioritise the Lords. As a result, there’s every incentive to put your people in, even if the appointments do the House no credit, and little downside to doing so.

The Lords became more influential in the New Labour years. It continued to be more assertive under the Coalition. And since 2015, the Conservatives have had their first experience of single-party government with no particular advantage in the second chamber. Their tendency to menace it whenever it gets a bit uppity shows they don’t like it one little bit. But on the whole, the surprise isn’t that unedifying appointments get made: the surprise is that prime ministers show any restraint at all.

We could do a bit to reduce the problem. We could agree a formula for sharing out Lords appointments, taking the partisan makeup of the House out of prime ministers’ hands. We could beef up vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Wakeham Commission on Lords reform even envisaged the Commission appointing party-political, not just independent, members of the Lords (except for a few elected members). Labour rejected this at first: it came round in 2007, before moving (in theory) to an elected second chamber.

It should be a no-brainer that prime ministers shouldn’t be able to skew the makeup of the second chamber. And few would object to tougher vetting of peers, if we take it as read that we the people get no say in their appointment. The first would be a real step forward; the second might at least help address some of the most egregious appointments.

But how far can vetting go? What is our working definition of ‘improper’ beyond the most egregious cases? If we want it to tackle the wider issue of political patronage, then how? Is the Appointments Commission meant to assess if Johnson, or indeed Starmer, is giving too many peerages to his factional allies? If we exclude politicians and their advisers, how many members with no political history and capacity to serve can parties rustle up? And do we actually want that anyway? Post-Brexit Britain will need to get better at lobbying EU institutions now it’s given up its voice in them. Do we really want to ban former MEPs from the Lords?

Going further and letting the Appointments Commission choose party as well as Crossbench peers may or may not prove tenable. I very much doubt a less deferential age would take its bona fides on trust. The experience of the ‘people’s peers’ hardly inspires confidence in the public credibility of any such model. Britain’s parties have enough difficulty respecting the independence of the judiciary. I doubt they’ll defer to a quango telling them who will represent them in the Lords with no recourse.

Of course, you might try and remove parties altogether. In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are trying to do just that. Their aim is a non-partisan Senate, with an independent Board to advise (though not bind) prime ministers on appointments. The idea is to restore the Senate’s role as a chamber of ‘sober second thought’, with a less partisan and more independent-minded approach than the Commons.

Some accounts do suggest this has partly happened. Individual Independent Senators are often distinguished. But fairly or unfairly, their independence from the Liberals remains disputed. (Some Senators left the Independent Senators Group over this question.) The Government had to create a caucus of of three to handle its Bills. Ex-Liberal Senators formed their own Progressive Senators Group, which some Independents have joined. The Conservatives continue to oppose the principle. Whether it’ll bed down I don’t know. I think we can already say it won’t quell (admittedly ill-fated) calls for wider Senate reform.

In any case, I’d argue the whole concept is dubious in democratic principle. This is especially true if all members are non-partisan, denying voters any say over the makeup of the Lords. On what basis should a politically unaccountable body have such power over policymaking in the round? How should it decide how much weight to accord diplomacy, defence, development, law, economics, business, trade unions and welfare?

Weighing these things up is exactly what we have politics for. It’s not just that the Lords never will be a dispassionate chamber of experts: it actually shouldn’t be. Parliaments need politics, lawmaking isn’t an academic seminar — and frankly, the whole notion reeks of anti-politics to me. Independent appointments seem manageable for 20–25% of peers, whether or not you approve. It’s quite different if a quango decides which policy priorities we get to hear in half the legislature.

The House of Lords plays far too big a role in our legislative process to be removed from the political arena, even if such a thing were desirable. More radical Lords reformers are often charged with a lack of realism. But those who believe the Commons will up its game enough to remove the need for an active second chamber any time soon must be more utopian still.

In practice, that means there’s a fairly clear-cut choice. Parties will seek to get their people into both chambers of Parliament. The way they do that can involve the voters, or it can exclude them. If you opt for the latter, then yes, you may get some experts you wouldn’t get if they had to go on the campaign stump. You’ll also get MPs who’ve lost their seats, party leaders’ favoured sons and daughters and others who offend your sensibilities. And you will be able to do nothing about it.

I admit it: for me, no one should sit in Parliament unless the voters put them there, as a matter of principle. I want the second chamber to provide a stronger check on government and a balance for the smaller nations in our (imperilled) union state. So I was never attracted to some sub-Platonic chamber of experts anyway. But I also think it’s a pipe dream. If you reject letting the voters decide, then in the main, party leaders will decide for you.

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