Politics is about power. Who holds it. How you use it. What you can achieve with it. How you get rid of those who wield it. And the early evidence from the Con-Dem coalition government is that far from opening a new era of open politics, they are resorting to every trick in the book to entrench their power. Hence the attempt to raise the threshold for sacking the Government from 50 per cent to 55 per cent of MPs, which would mean that a government could remain in office despite losing the confidence of the Commons. Even if the Commons voted by a majority to hold a general election, the Government would still sail on regardless. It is a profoundly illiberal move.
So too is the proposal, tucked away in the coalition deal, to create a plethora of new peers "with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election". That's a pretty tall order. There are already 707 peers. Roughly a quarter of them are crossbenchers, owing no allegiance to any particular party, but the rest are party men and women, taking a whip. That's 211 Labour peers, 186 Conservatives and 72 Lib Dems.
In order to fulfil the coalition agreement, there would have to be nearly 100 additional Liberal peers and about 80 Tories. That would be the largest simultaneous act of political patronage since the Stuarts, who busily packed the Lords with their friends, their lovers and their relations, doling out earldoms, dukedoms and marquessates like so much confetti. Not even George III or that great manufacturer of peerages, Lloyd George, could match the Cameron-Clegg list.
I can see why the Tories want it. They have no real intention of reforming the Lords and Cameron has a host of business leaders and donors that he has to reward somehow. Arise Lord Rose. I can also see why, on a cynical day, the Liberals would hanker after it. Despite their ancient commitment to an elected Second Chamber, as adumbrated with more hope than expectation in the Parliament Act of 1911, they have long felt under-represented in the Lords and they already have a somewhat presumptuous list of 30 candidates, with Brian Paddick at the top. I don't have anything against Brian. He's a nice guy. But I just think it's wrong to appoint anybody to a legislature, let alone for life. Appointed party peers have no mandate and such absolute patronage corrupts the body politic. But I also fear the Liberals will look to another set of people to make up the numbers: those who lost their Commons seats in the last election.
I can just hear Lord Lembit strutting his stuff in his faux ermine, and I foresee Paddick's predecessor as Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London, the ex-MP Susan Kramer, gaining a coronet. They too are decent people. I wish they'd won, but I really hope the Liberals will not take the electorate for such fools. Parliament cannot be a place with revolving doors. Would it not be odd for more Lib Dems to enter Parliament through the backdoor by appointment rather than the front door by election?
Moreover, it's wrong-headed to want the numbers in the Lords to match the Commons. That way constitutional mayhem lies, with each chamber claiming legitimacy. Better to elect a chamber, by thirds, over time, so that the Lords can never challenge the primacy of the Commons.
Many of us have argued for a long time that the House of Lords is already far too large, but with an additional 180 peers, the Chamber would have nearly 900 members, and the extra cost would come in at approximately £30.2m per year (based on the Commons library estimate of £168,000 per peer pa) – that's without considering redundancy should an elected chamber ever come into being.
There are bigger dangers in these proposals, though. With their present numbers the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives can already easily outvote Labour in the Lords. Indeed, this Government is already the first government to have a majority in both the Commons and the Lords since the creation of the life peers in 1958. That means there will be no brake on the Executive, no means of forcing the Government to think again, no need for ministers to amend their legislation, however badly drafted it may be.
It's not sour grapes to say that no Labour government has ever enjoyed such a majority. As a former minister I know how important parliamentary scrutiny can be, especially under the cosh of having no majority in the Lords. That lack of a majority often, irritatingly, saved us from ourselves. Sadly, the argument Cameron has used to defend his 55 pre cent proposal betrays a dangerous confusion. He says that it is necessary as it would make his Government "more stable". It's pretty worrying that the new Prime Minister is already confusing his party interest with the good of the country.
Many of us had hoped that a hung parliament would be an opportunity for Parliament itself to seize back some of the power from the Executive. If the coalition were to implement proposals to hand the order of business in the Commons over to a business committee of backbenchers, that might still happen. But if the coalition tries to bolster its position with a gerrymandered redrawing of parliamentary seats, the appointment of a host of new placemen and women in the Lords and a new block to removing the Government will prove itself the most brutally illiberal alliance.
The timing couldn't be more apposite. Ironically enough, in one of the most rococo elements of our present constitution, we are about to see in June two by-elections for hereditary peers following the deaths of the Earl of Northesk and Viscount Colville of Culross. The hereditary candidates will have to fight their corner with the 47 Conservative electors and 29 crossbenchers respectively. It all reeks of Blackadder and must surely be proof that we need proper reform of the Lords. Another swathe of appointments for life will make it harder to secure that reform, not easier. And take it from one poor soul that sat on a Committee on Reform of the House of Lords, we don't need another committee. We need reform.
The writer is MP for the Rhondda and was Europe Minister in the last governmentReuse content