Blair's friendly peers make Labour biggest party in Lords for first time

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Tony Blair is under pressure to push ahead with reform of the House of Lords after creating enough new peers to make Labour the largest party in the upper house for the first time.

Tony Blair is under pressure to push ahead with reform of the House of Lords after creating enough new peers to make Labour the largest party in the upper house for the first time.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats attacked Mr Blair's decision to create 16 new Labour peers but just six Tories and five Liberal Democrats. Supporters of reform called for a commitment to creating a largely elected House of Lords in the Queen's Speech next week.

The list will take Labour's total in the upper house to 214, outstripping the Conservatives' 211, although Mr Blair will still need the support of Liberal Democrat, crossbench or Tory peers to secure legislation.

The Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Lord Falconer, said the new peers would not change the "basic arithmetic" in the Lords. "We were two or three behind the Conservatives, now we are two or three ahead," he told the BBC. "The arithmetic will remain that if the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives unite against a particular proposal they can defeat it."

The row over the Lords comes after a week of clamour for reform of the Commons voting system following Labour's election victory with the lowest proportion of the vote since the 1920s. Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader, criticised the Labour bias in the list of new peers, given that the party won just 36 per cent of the vote at the general election. He said: "These numbers do not reflect the way the people of the UK voted last week, but they underline Labour's clear intention to clip the wings of the Lords.

"Rather than simply playing with the numbers, we need root and branch reform to provide for an almost totally elected upper house."

Mr Blair's list includes life peerages for a string of parliamentary loyalists, including the former education secretary Estelle Morris, Chris Smith, a former culture secretary, the former cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham and the maverick backbencher Tony Banks.

Oliver Heald, the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, accused Mr Blair of promoting a list of "cronies" to the Lords and called for democratic reform of the Lords. He said: "This is just the sort of patronising cronyist action the Prime Minister is known for. When you see this you start asking why are you going to have a prime minister with more powers of patronage than Henry VIII."

A spokesman for the constitutional reform pressure group Charter 88 said: "Appointing a lot of retired politicians is not very positive. It is not a retirement home for politicians. It is supposed to be a place of experts."

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and another advocate of reform, called for a commitment to legislation as soon as possible. He said: "I certainly would hope it was in the Queen's Speech. I believe the sooner we can get this started the better."

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who as Leader of the Commons attempted to drive through proposals for a partially elected House of Lords, said he hoped MPs would now agree on a way forward. He said: "People were shocked last time that we could not find a single proportion of elected peers. I hope we will now be able to get a consensus on something which is good if not perfect."

Meg Russell, a former aide to Mr Cook and now a senior researcher on the Lords at University College London, added: "It is not unreasonable that the governing party should be the largest party in the Lords. But such a large batch of appointments, the majority of them Labour, shows how the current system can potentially be abused."

Labour's list of peers also includes Ann Taylor, a former chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and Donald Anderson, a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

On the Conservative benches, appointments include Virginia Bottomley, a former health secretary, Gillian Shephard, a former education secretary, Sir Nicholas Lyell, a former Tory attorney general, and the former transport secretary and Tory chairman Sir Brian Mawhinney.

Liberal Democrat appointments include Paul Tyler, who campaigned as shadow Commons leader for reform of the Lords. Jenny Tonge, the former Richmond MP who was sacked as international development spokesman for comments about suicide bombers, is given a peerage, along with Sir Archy Kirkwood, a former chairman of the House of Commons commission.

The Labour list includes Jean Corston, a former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, her predecessor Clive Soley, and George Foulkes, a former international development minister. Mr Blair's list of working peers also includes Alan Howarth, a former Tory education minister who defected to Labour before the 1997 election and later became Arts minister.