The start of a new ConservativeHome series on implementing the Conservative Manifesto.
When we Conservatives are in opposition, we tend to exalt the Lords as a wondrous institution, an assembly of eminent and distinguished experts, a bulwark against executive tyranny. Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes! Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
And when we are in government, we tend to claim that it is an overloaded anachronism, stuffed with dodgy donors, union barons (translated into real ones) and clapped-out placemen – an illegitimate obstacle to the wishes of the democratically-elected representatives of the British people.
Guess which narrative is dominant at the moment.
Tory anxiety is justified, at least up to point. It cannot be assumed that all peers will automatically honour the Salisbury Convention, which holds that the Lords will not oppose the second or third reading of government legislation promised in its manifesto.
The Convention has been under pressure in the Upper House for some time, with Labour and Liberal Democrat peers challenging the legitimacy of a Government’s majority in the Commons – given poor voter turnout and the relatively low vote share gained by parties when they govern on their own.
Furthermore, some peers claim that the Blair reforms, which ended the automatic Conservative majority in the Lords, have given the chamber a new authority. Already, Labour peers are threatening to join with Liberal Democrat ones to block Government legislation that they don’t like.
So what it to be done? If the Lords were to thwart David Cameron’s key manifesto pledges, his Government will have little point to it. This is why we have opened this new series on how to implement the manifesto by highlighting the biggest obstacle to its commitments.
Excitable voices are urging Cameron to create 100 peers, thus transforming the political balance of the Upper Chamber at a stroke – and enabling him to drive legislation on the EU referendum, the British Bill of Rights, boundary reform and so on through the chamber.
This would provoke the mother of all constitutional wrangles to no certain end, especially since parts of the Conservative backbenches would oppose any such move. Cameron came to grief over Lords reform in his first term as Prime Minister. He doesn’t want to risk doing so early in his second.
Were the upper chamber deliberately to set out to thwart the Government, he would have to reconsider. But for the moment he will steer clear of the more radical reforms floated by Charles Tannock on this site yesterday.
The best way forward is as follows.
- Take the Lords seriously… Tensions between the Lords and government aren’t simply stoked by ambitious Labour and Liberal Democrat peers. There is a sense among Conservative ones that Downing Street has little grasp or interest in what the Upper House does – exemplified under the last Government by Tina Stowell losing the full-time Cabinet post traditionally held by the Leader of the Lords, an error that has now been corrected. Furthermore, successive governments have not honoured the Upper House’s function as a revising one: too often, Lords Ministers are instructed not to yield to amendments, and legislation comes from the Commons without proper consideration. The problem of the Lords is thus part of the problem of Parliament as a whole. The Government should begin its term by giving the Upper House a lot of rope, thus enabling it to come to any clash with clean hands. Lords Ministers should be given more leeway to use their judgement, adapt to circumstances, and accept amendments to bills if they believe it necessary. If peers then use this rope to hang themselves – by obstructing measures for which the Government has a mandate – they will have only themselves to blame.
- …And reform it slowly… There are two major problems with the Upper House. The first is size: with over 800 members, it is simply too big. The second is that the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to create “a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last election” has come back to bite the Government – and the Upper Chamber itself. By the standard that the Agreement set out, the Lords is now seriously wanting. There are not enough Conservative peers, and there are far too few UKIP ones and far too many Liberal Democrats. The SNP won’t sit in the Upper House at all.
- …Starting by cutting its size. The Lords itself seems to agree that it is too large. There was support within it for Lord Steel’s proposal to reduce its size by excluding peers with a poor attendance record. As the ConservativeHome Manifesto recommended, the Government should take up where he left off. The Upper House should be reduced in size by up to half, and its political balance altered in line with the Coalition Agreement – since we are apparently moving towards a Lords more representative of voters’ wishes, and there is no political consensus for anything else. That means fewer Liberal Democrat peers, more Conservatives, and a big splash of UKIP ones. There is no present basis for reducing the percentage of crossbenchers. Peers with a bad attendance record already having been removed, it would be up to the political party groups in the Lords to decide how they wish to proceed. They might take their model from the hereditaries, who voted to determine who was to stay and who was to leave. Meanwhile, the Government should plan its legislation very carefully: for example, it would be asking for trouble to introduce legislation on human rights reform and curbing extremism into the Upper House at the same time.
All in all, if the Government tries to further reform with the aim of Party advantage, its plans are likely to go astray. But if it proceeds by attempting to do the right thing, it won’t do its programme any harm – and might even do it a bit of good.