Archive for the 'House of Lords' Category


Corbyn’s gift to the Tories and Mrs May – his boycott of the House of Lords

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

The balance in the Upper House has silently trended towards the blues

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like the House of Lords and as with many things he doesn’t like, he’s gone out of his way to avoid engaging with it. When he was first running for the Labour leadership, he promised that he wouldn’t nominate any new Labour peers. That was understandable for someone who has long opposed the nature of the undemocratic upper House, and for someone who’s always believed in the power of the boycott.

Three years on, he’s not quite kept to that promise. Three new Labour peers have been created since the beginning of 2016 (this is a better starting point than September 2015, when Corbyn was actually elected, as the post-2015GE peers were still being created through the autumn). A fourth, Martha Osamor – race equality campaigner, mother of Shadow cabinet member Kate Osamor, and defender of various Labour members accused of antisemitism – has been nominated but hasn’t yet received her title.

Boycotts, however, have a habit of being self-defeating (especially when only partially carried out, where they lose their moral weight too). Against the three new Labour peers to have entered the House since the beginning of 2016, seven have retired, two lost their place for non-attendance, and sixteen have died: a total loss of 25 Labour members leaving the party down by a net 22, or more than 10% of its strength.

By contrast, while the Conservatives have lost about the same number, 24 new Tory peers have been created on Theresa May’s watch (some of these may be Cameron’s resignation honours; I’ve not checked that closely – the effect and numbers are more important that who proposed them). Add in another one from 2016 before Cameron resigned, plus two other hereditaries elected in by-elections, and the Tories’ numbers in the Lords are up by a net 3 over the same period.

That slight increase also has to be set against a shrinking House elsewhere. Not a single new Lib Dem peer has been created since the beginning of 2016, leaving the Yellows down a net 7 in that time (though we should note that eleven Lib Dem peers were sent up to the Lords in October 2015). Crossbench numbers are also down with a net change of -20 (14 in and some 34 leaving, over half of them making use of the new retirement facility).

    What all this means is that Corbyn has chosen to put the government in a better position in the Lords by about 15-20 seats than it would have had, had he pressed for and made use of something much closer to a pro rata entitlement.

    Add in the changes elsewhere and the government is probably 30 seats or so better off against the other parties in net terms than it was nearly three years ago.

Of course, the Lords isn’t the Commons. Even after those changes, the Tories still have nothing like a majority, with fewer than a third of the members: 249 out of 791. All the same, if Corbyn continues his near-boycott and if the Lib Dems’ numbers continue to decline in the light of their last two election results (they currently have 17% of party-affiliated peers: more than double their vote shares in 2015 or 2017), then it won’t be long before the Conservatives do have more than half the members who take a whip. At the moment, against the Tories’ 249, there are exactly 300 from other parties (including four from the DUP), plus 215 cross-benchers or unaffiliated.

In terms of critical votes, the Lords isn’t that important. It cannot make or break governments. It cannot veto Budgets. It cannot reverse Brexit. What it can do, however, is substantially alter legislation against a government’s will – and do so in a way that can often be difficult to reverse. By refusing to taint himself with the brush of ermine (except when convenient), Corbyn will undoubtedly hand the government victories in the Lords it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I wonder though whether he or his advisors are playing a longer game. We know that Corbyn and those around him want an early election, which is possible but unlikely. If it’s later – particularly, if it’s in 2022 – then the attrition of retirement and the great Returning Officer in the sky will likely deplete Labour’s numbers much further. Were they to then win, they’d find themselves heavily outnumbered in a hostile upper House. Never mind that it was their own (in)actions that led to that, it’d still provide a pretext to flood it with True Believers, or to reform it into an elected body (though that’s something that’s always a lot more attractive in opposition than in government), or to abolish it outright.

Before then though, the Tory PMs will find life a little easier up the corridor than they’ve a right to expect. Given the many challenges of the coming months and years, that might only be a slim silver lining – but in an otherwise dull lead sky, any sparkle will be welcomed.

David Herdson


Michael Crick is right about appointments to the House of Lords

Friday, January 5th, 2018

If we are continuing with an appointed upper chamber then the process must be transparent

With Mrs. May, who lost the CON majority last June, planning to bolster CON representation in the House of Lords then there’s a fair bit of speculation about who might get the £300 a day plus expenses roles.

Let us not forget that the reason we have an appointed Lords is that Tory backbench MPs rebelled on a programme motion in 2011 effectively stopping any progress on the coalition plan for an elected upper house.

In normal times there is a convention that the Lords does not seek to impede legislation that was in the general election manifesto of a party winning a majority which did not happen last June. So no majority means no convention.

Mrs. May went to the country last June seeking a mandate for her Brexit plans which the voters did not give her.

Mike Smithson


BMG finds 63% now want an elected House of Lords – up 15 points on two years ago

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

And 27% (+5) want it abolished completely

Maybe its down to the Brexit-induced greater focus on constitutional affairs but support for overhauling the second chamber has soared over the past two years – from 48% backing partly- or fully-elected upper house in 2015, to 63% now, according to polling by BMG Research commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society.

The poll found that 27% thought the second chamber should be abolished – up from 22% in 2015 – while only 10% think it should remain as it is.

This polling comes at a critical time with lots of predictions that their Lordships are going to try to amend the Brexit bill when it gets there in the New Year. It also coincides with a report by the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House being released later this afternoon. This is expected to announce changes such as a 15 year term limit on new peers, and a commitment from parties to reduce their representation by a quarter over the next 10 years.

    The ERS have described the recommendations as a ‘cheap compromise’ and ‘mere tinkering’, criticising the committee for ruling out changing how peers get there in the first place.

The 2010 Coalition agreement provided for an elected House of Lords but progress on the bill got derailed by a Tory backbench rebellion which led to it being abandoned.

I agree with ERS boss Darren Hughes when he says:

What we need is a much smaller, fairly-elected upper house that the public can have faith in – and where voters can hold ineffective peers to account.

Peers cannot be allowed to mark their own homework when it comes to fixing this broken upper house. The public call for a real overhaul is loud and clear. Now let’s get on with it and give voters the democratic revising chamber Britain needs.

Mike Smithson


What I’m hoping to tell the House of Lords next week about the polling fail at the general election

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Some thoughts on what I might say

A week today I’ll be travelling to Westminster where I have been invited to give evidence before the House of Lords Committee that’s carrying out a review of what went wrong with GE2017 polls.

Depending on the questioning by their Lordships I expect to make the point that the campaign had been dominated by the CON landslide narrative that had been reinforced by the May 4th local and mayoral elections where the Tories enjoyed their best night for ten years. That very much supported the general election polling at the time with CON leads of upto 20%

UKIP’s virtual wipe-out in the May 4th elections had created the widespread assumption, wrongly as it turned out, that the Tories would pick up the lion’s share of UKIP’s GE2015 votes and, accordingly, we could assume blue gains in some very unlikely constituencies.

A second theme that ran very strongly was, based on GE2015, that the polls always understated the Tories. So if there was a range of GE2017 polls with similar fieldwork dates then the ones with the best CON position should be given the most credence. The polls that had it much closer like Survation and the YouGov model were dismissed as outliers.

It was in this context that many of the pollsters felt confident that their post GE2015 changes, particularly on turnout modelling, had been correct.

The mood just before the election was very much reflected in the Andrew Neil’s interview with Survation’s Damian Lyon Lowe about his polling that pointed to a hung parliament.

    I am hoping to make the point about my long-standing view that leader ratings (not the best PM numbers) should be given much more emphasis and have in the past proved more reliable.

Thus in June the leader ratings had moved sharply away from Mrs. May to Mr. Corbyn in the final few days. This made GE2017 like the GE1992 and GE2015 polling fails when this data had given much better pointers to the final outcomes than the pollsters’ voting intention numbers. Thus at the start of the campaign Mrs. May had a net +17 well/badly score with YouGov. By polling day that was down to a net minus 5. Clearly something was happening.

Mike Smithson


Could it, should it, will it soon be Lord Farage?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016


An intriguing part of PMQs today was May’s response when asked if UKIP leader Nigel Farage will be given a peerage – this starting speculation that he will be. The PM’s response was “such matters are normally never discussed in public”.

But there is a strong case for UKIP should have some peers created for it. The party came top in the 2014 Euros with 27% of the vote and most MEPs. At GE2015 it chalked up 4m+ votes but the only recompense was the CON defector, Douglas Carswell was re-elected.

Farage himself just missed out in Thanet South – an issue that remains highly topical as those who saw Michael Crick’s report on C4 News last night will recall. There has been an ongoing investigation by the Electoral Commission and the police into whether the Tory party’s officially declared expenses in the seat were accurate or not in particular for the lack of inclusion of the costs of basing in Ramsgate some top CON officials.

Crick presented what appeared to be strong evidence evidence that the constituency campaign was led by Nick Timothy – now Theresa May’s top aide.

Giving Farage a peerage might just preempt some of the inevitable outcry if the investigation goes badly for the Tories.

I’m expecting Lord Farage betting markets in the next day or so.

Mike Smithson


The Tories would be in a stronger position over the Lords if at GE2015 they’d attracted more than 36.9% of the vote

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

National vote shares at GE2005 & GE2015 levels do matter

Yesterday afternoon the Cameron biographer, pollster and former Tory treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, made the above perceptive Tweet about the limitations of the current government’s power. While in the 2010-2015 parliament this had been because of the Lib Dem coalition the reality now is that the Cameron government’s main limitation is the House of Lords.

Much has been written about last week’s vote by the upper house to impede George Osborne’s tax credits plan but there hasn’t been much about the challenges a majority government has when it has secured it with a national vote share of 36.9%

This is in sharp contrast to 2005 when Tony Blair’s LAB majority on 35.2% of the national vote sparked off a fair amount of discussion about legitimacy. In England at that election, it will be recalled, the Tories came top on votes but were a 100 English seats short of Labour.

It was in that context ten years ago that the Lib Dem group in the House of Lords declared that they would not be following the Salisbury convention which broadly ensures that election winners can enact specific policies in their manifestos. So it wasn’t surprising that after this May’s election the yellow team the Lords, now 100+ because of all the new peers created by Mr Cameron, announced that it was taking the same view of the Conservative 36.9% national vote share.

The big impact of the general election outcome in the upper house was that all those LD peers moved from government to opposition.

A quirk of first past the post in an increasingly multi party political environment is that the chances of overall majorities with UK vote shares in the mid-30s are much higher. Indeed two of the past three elections have produced such outcomes.

If the Tory vote share in May had been close to 40% or above then there would have been much more pressure on opposition peers not to do as they did. 36.9% wasn’t enough and we will see other clashes in the coming months and years.

National vote shares do matter.

Mike Smithson


Antifrank looks at what now for the House of Lords

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

pic (1)

The possible courses of action

So the House of Lords has opted for confrontation with the government by asserting its right to intervene on financial matters that are not covered by the letter of the Parliament Act 1949. In turn, the government, like King Lear, has threatened that “I will do such things — what they are yet I know not — but they shall be the terrors of the earth”. We’ll see.

It has long been recognised by pretty much everyone at every point on the political spectrum that the House of Lords is in need of reform. It has no democratic legitimacy and with the modern supremacy of life peers, following the Life Peerages Act 1958, it is now dominated by appointees. The rate of appointment has quickened in recent years. No research has been undertaken that I am aware of to determine whether this reflects an improvement in the quality of potential candidates or whether grade inflation has taken hold.

Since the turn of the century, three serious attempts have been made at reforming the House of Lords. In 2003, every single option put to the House of Commons was rejected. In 2007, the House of Commons voted in favour of either a House of Lords that was wholly-elected or where 80% of its members were elected. However, the (almost wholly-appointed) House of Lords voted in favour only of a wholly-appointed House of Lords. This impasse was not resolved.

In 2010, the coalition agreement went into some detail on this question:

“We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.

The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

The proposals were duly put forward, but then Conservative backbenchers scuppered them, being hostile to the idea of single 15 year fixed terms for elected peers. The same problem keeps recurring: despite general agreement that the current state of affairs is unsatisfactory, every attempt at reform of the House of Lords founders on a complete lack of agreement on what should replace it.

There is an underlying question that is rarely addressed: what should the House of Lords be for? At present, it operates as a revising chamber. Under the Parliament Act 1911, the House of Lords can slow down legislation introduced by the House of Commons but it cannot stop it completely if the Commons is determined.

To date the two houses have rarely clashed. The House of Lords has only been overruled on seven occasions and it has given way on a further three occasions when the House of Commons threatened to use its final powers. The Parliament Act has only been invoked once under a Conservative Government (for the War Crimes Act 1991, if you’re interested).

Progressive governments have had to contend with truculent lords more often up till now. This looks likely to change for two reasons. First, the numbers have changed. Historically the Conservatives have controlled the House of Lords. Following 13 years of Labour government to 2010 and the stripping of the rights of the hereditary peers, this is no longer the case. Under the coalition it mattered less because the Lib Dem peers could be added to the Conservative tally. With the Lib Dem peers transferring on 8 May 2015 from the government to the opposition ranks, the Conservatives’ minority status in the House of Lords becomes much more important.

Secondly, both Labour and the Lib Dems look likely to be much more assertive in the House of Lords in this Parliament than previously. The Lib Dems have already signalled that they are breaking with the Salisbury Convention, under which peers do not seek to block legislation that is mentioned in the government manifesto. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn also look likely to be less respectful of conventions in the House of Lords (though Labour lords reaffirmed their observance of it as recently as June). The vote on tax credits confirms that neither party in the Lords is the least bit troubled by the spirit of convention and obligation – the previous statutory instruments voted down by the Lords concerned UN sanctions on Rhodesia as it then was, arrangements for the Mayoral elections in London (two different statutory instruments), supercasinos and changes to legal aid eligibility. The changes to tax credits form an integral part of the government’s budgetary plans and the decision to vote them down represents astepchange in the Lords’ willingness to intervene in matters central to government administration.

This probably reflects their Commons colleagues’ inability to mount effective oppositions. Nature abhors a vacuum and if the Labour party and the Lib Dems in the Commons are going to be ineffectual, others will feel the urge to step into the gap.

Let us assume for now that the Conservatives decide to take action as opposed to bluster: they need to determine what they expect from the House of Lords. There is as yet no sign at all of any serious thinking by the government as to how it should be reformed. MPs recognise uneasily that an increase in democracy in the upper house would lead to an increase in its legitimacy. They do not want to see a rival source of power develop (this approach is no doubt in the interests of MPs though it is not obviously in the interests of the country as a whole). So how can the government preserve the general balance of power between the two Houses of Parliament while clipping the wings of unelected peers?

The straightforward approach, as threatened by anonymous government sources, would be to ennoble vast numbers of Conservative time-servers to rebalance the House of Lords numerically rather than structurally. This would simultaneously look like gerrymandering and venal (and would place a strain on the vetting procedures that would probably result in timebombs of scandal detonating every few months for years to come). It would also risk drawing the monarchy into politics, so it looks like a complete non-starter to me.

If the upper house is to be elected but to have lesser legitimacy, the type of approach of providing for limited electoral accountability proposed by the Lib Dems in the last Parliament and kyboshed by Conservative backbenchers would work theoretically but now not politically. Given that full and regular elections to the upper house would fundamentally upend the balance between the two houses, I doubt whether the government could get them through Parliament even if it tried. Getting rid of the House of Lords completely would be still more controversial and I can’t see it being floated, still less enacted.

So what else might the government do? It might seek to enshrine in legislation the conventions that have operated to date but which now seem to be breaking down, adding new ones in for its own convenience (further restrictions on the Lords’ ability to block statutory instruments may suddenly look tempting). The government seems to be thinking along these lines if press reports since the vote are to be believed.

This form of limitation would be resisted strongly by the House of Lords and would probably need the Parliament Act procedures to be invoked. This type of constitutional change to the role of the House of Lords has a precedent. The Parliament Act 1949 was passed in just this manner. It would be an amusing inversion of the Salisbury Convention, since the Conservative manifesto stated explicitly that reform of the House of Lords was not a priority in this Parliament.

But it would satisfy the need for “something” to be done and it is a “something” that the government would have good prospects of securing. The government’s rage with the House of Lords is no doubt very real. It no doubt is seriously considering what revenge it can take on the vermin in ermine. But it isn’t the first government to look at this problem and it may well not be the last to conclude that it is all just too difficult. The  House of Lords’ days have looked numbered ever since the Parliament Act 1911. That number may still, however, be in the thousands.





The tax credits defeat happened because the Tories are still paying a price for not winning a majority in 2010

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015


The UK politics version “A peerage is for life not just for a parliament”

Whenever I see animal welfare posters like the one above I think of the Coalition agreement of May 11 2010 – the day that David Cameron became PM after reaching an agreement with Nick Clegg and his team.

For in recent days there’s been some comment that the Liberal Democrats are in a very strong position with 100+ peers in the House of Lords – a total that is disproportionate to the 8 MPs they were left with after the general election in the House of Commons.

During the five years of the Coalition the total number of Liberal Democrat peers just about doubled. This was because of the section of the agreement on House of Lords reform.

The idea was that during the last Parliament the upper house would be reformed and made into an elected chamber. In the meantime it was agreed that the proportion of Lords that a party had would be linked to their national vote sshares at the 2010 election.

The thinking at the time was that these new peers would really be temporary appointments whose role would terminate once a new structure had been put into place. After all both coalition partners, in public at least, had committed themselves to creating this.

As we know that all didn’t happen following the commons rebellion by Tory backbenchers in July 2012. The process for extra peers, however, remained, and the yellows saw a huge expansion in their numbers in the House of Lords. They are there for life and not just for a parliament.

Without them the Tories would have escaped unscathed from last night’s voted on Mr Osborne’s tax credits changes.

Mike Smithson