Abolition of the Lords, that home of cronies, toads and donors, can’t come too soon | Andrew Rawnsley
JThe cure for the admiration of the House of Lords is to describe it to someone from abroad. To an American, you’ll have to explain why there are over 800 people allowed to sit in our grotesquely bloated upper house while the United States manages with 100 senators. Anyone, anywhere, you’ll have to tell them about the presence of 92 hereditary peers, encrusted on the red leather pews because a distant ancestor fought for a long-dead monarch or gave a blow to a long-dead prime minister. When one of these hereditaries gets rid of this deadly coil, then there is the most eccentric kind of poll. The vacancy is filled in a by-election in which only hereditary peers can participate as candidates and voters. The others are the “lifers”, a mix of good, bad and ugly. Some are dedicated individuals who truly excel in fields such as science, public service, or business. It would be a shame to lose their wisdom and experience, but a price to pay for purging Parliament of the many peers who are only there because successive party leaders have filled the place with cronies, toads and donors. The ranks of the men and women of place have grown in recent years, swelling the crowd of mediocrities and gargoyles who do not serve the public interest, but only their own interests.
Contemporary ‘nobility’ includes Baroness Mone, a creation of David Cameron. She announced ‘leave of absence’ to ‘clear her name’ after evidence emerged suggesting she and her family secretly received large amounts of taxpayer money by exploiting express cronyism for lucrative PPE contracts . Also among the lifers are Lord Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and Siberia in the Russian Federation, the party organizer and newspaper owner son of a Russian oligarch who was previously a KGB agent . He was parachuted into the Legislative Assembly by Boris Johnson who reportedly submitted a resignation honors list demanding peerages for his Number 10 minions, Tory MPs who defended his tenure in Downing Street long after it was clear that ‘he was to be kicked out, and a conservative donor who hosted one of his vacations.
The utterly undemocratic and ridiculously overcrowded chamber has become so discredited that the state of play worries even the great lords. Yet there has been no serious reform for a generation. Tony Blair withdrew the majority of hereditary peers during New Labor’s first term, then lost interest in finishing the job. Like so many prime ministers before and since, it suited him to keep the Lords, not least as an arena to wield the broad patronage powers of Number 10. In 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition pledged to replace the Lords by a fully or largely elected house by proportional representation. Nick Clegg’s attempt to make it happen was thwarted by a Tory revolt and Mr Cameron’s lack of enthusiasm. He was another Prime Minister who loved patronage privileges, although his ennoblement of Michelle Mone may now be added to the very long list of things he should regret.
It’s bad enough that the upper house is used as a gilded retirement home for the Prime Minister’s cronies and a padded palace for those to whom they owe favors. It is worse that the seats of our parliament can be bought. Selling honors is against the law. Yet there is a surprisingly high correlation between donating large sums to a political party and covering oneself in ermine. It would be a more honest system if Number 10 held an annual peerage auction. Your offers, please, to become Lord Loot of Slime Bucket in the county of Sleazeshire. At least then we would know the price of a seat in our legislature.
No one would invent it, but it works. Apologists for the Lords always present this defense whenever reform is discussed. The truth is, it doesn’t work and needs to be fixed. One of the fundamental arguments for having a second chamber is to prevent ministers from bulldozing bad laws through the Commons and to protect unconstitutional government behavior. Yet his peers were powerless when Mr Johnson illegally shut down Parliament in 2019. The Supreme Court had to step in to stop it. The upper chamber has not been a brake on the scandal. On the contrary, the Lords themselves have increasingly become a source of it. Rishi Sunak says he is “absolutely shocked” by Baroness Mone. The Prime Minister has somehow risen to the top of the Conservative Party while leading a very sheltered life.
The Lords have not stopped recent governments from inflicting a whole host of weak laws on Britain. They were onlookers during the sordid reign of Mr Johnson and the disastrous reign of Mad Queen Liz. Peers sometimes resist enough to slow down the executive, but they almost always give in when it comes to the crisis. The Lords are not so much a check and balance as a speed bump that can always be overthrown by a determined government in possession of a majority in the House of Commons. This is one of the main reasons why efforts to replace the Lords with a more respectable chamber have failed. He agreed with prime ministers to retain an upper house too compromised to act as a proper check on executive excesses.
This will all change if Labor forms the next government. So says Sir Keir Starmer. It passed the abolition of the Lords and its replacement by an elected house representing the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. It is one of 40 reforms proposed by a commission headed by Gordon Brown. The report also contains some welcome ideas on cleaning up Westminster and redistributing power, although this plan lacks elements to reinvigorate our democracy. The most notable absentee is the change in how we elect the Commons to make the primary chamber of the legislature more representative of the people it governs. The Brown commission will not have the final say on the subject, but it has provided us with an excellent basis for discussing how we will create a more transparent, accountable and pluralistic constitutional settlement.
Predictably, suggestions for reform have been met with world-weary sneers from those who have seen previous plans fail and mocking jeers from those who say there are more important things to think about than saving our democracy from public mistrust. I really hate the claim that voters are indifferent to the “boring” topic of how they are governed, a claim that is as condescending as it is false. Polls indicate that the British are very troubled by the dilapidated state of their institutions and the mismanagement of their institutions. A poll commissioned for the Brown Report found that a shocking majority of people feel “invisible” to their political leaders. The public is open to the case that our country has been held back by an overly centralized state, based on clientelism and monopolizing power.
The most insidious opposition to reform comes from Labor who say a Starmer government will have too much to do to get bogged down in a “quagmire” of constitutional change. This kind of running cold water often comes from Labor peers who know they can’t justify the Lords, but rather like to sit there. I understand. What’s not to love about being a peer? That’s not much, because their average age is 71 and so few of them voluntarily retire. Status isn’t the only draw. There are the beautiful facilities in which to entertain you and your guests, the freedom to show up or not as you wish, untaxed attendance allowance of up to £323 per sitting day, free parking in the London center for senior peers, easy access to ministers and lifetime legislative rights. Sir Keir cannot abandon the Lords because the status quo is such a soft cushion for his Labor peers.
There is a semi-serious objection to replacing the Lords with elected representatives. The case is that a more legitimate upper house would be more assertive and that could lead to a stalemate when it comes up against the House of Commons. This is not an argument against change, it is an argument for a careful delineation of the respective powers and responsibilities of the chambers. Many countries have two elected chambers – Australia, France and Germany are among them – without this resulting in a paralyzed government.
And they don’t suffer from the embarrassment that all Britons face when asked to explain our absurdly archaic and decadent way of allocating seats in our parliament.