It is an open secret that the Prime Minister cares little about reform of the House of Lords; by the looks of things, he cares even less about whom he appoints to it. For 100 years, prime ministers have used the extraordinary power of patronage they possess to look after friends, neutralise enemies, flatter allies and reward past favours by creating peers – who, let us not forget, help to make our laws – and we have seen some pretty rum lists over the years.
Even so, David Cameron’s first offering as head of a fully Conservative administration was a cheeky effort: overwhelmingly Tory; former special advisers who have never done a “proper job”; donors who have given the Conservative Party significant sums; and the usual crop of superannuated former MPs, some with the baggage of expense claims embarrassments.
And yet Mr Cameron may have done the rest of us an enormous favour. For in provoking such a wave of repugnance he has put the dry issue of Lords reform right into the centre of public consciousness. Of course, he was greatly aided in this enterprise by a warm-up routine performed by a wayward Labour peer in orange lingerie; on this, at least, the work of discrediting the House of Lords has been a cross-party as well as cross-dressing exercise.
No surprise, then, that the public is increasingly wondering why it spends millions of pounds a year on the upkeep of this elaborate club with its ancient incomprehensible traditions and badly defined role. The Lord Janner affair also highlighted how those with badly diminished mental faculties can still, formally at least, be full members of the Upper Chamber of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
It is probably the worst year the Lords have endured since 1910, when a Liberal government started to put them in their place – firmly subordinate to the elected Commons, and left unfinished the business of full reform. Would that today’s Liberal Democrats had such democratic ambitions.
It is difficult to suppress a giggle when the ever-grand and soon-to-be ennobled former leader Sir Menzies Campbell argues that he will be seeking to argue for reform of the Lords “from within”. They all say that, Ming – including trade unionist leaders and one-time socialists. The Lib Dems too have seen their donors elevated there. Only the SNP, which scorns the Lords as beyond reform, has any real integrity in its attitude. The old place is starting to collapse politically as surely as its neo-Gothic physical surroundings are crumbling.
We cannot go on like this. Every time there is a change of government, a new prime minister will seek to “redress the balance” of party representation in the Lords in his own party’s favour. Tony Blair did it for Labour; the Liberal Democrats boosted an already substantial contingent further while in coalition, but will not give up places even when they are down to just eight MPs; and now the Conservatives want to tip the balance back towards where things stood for the whole of the 20th century – an inbuilt Tory majority defending party interests.
When the balance of the Commons changes again there will be a further inflation in numbers. There is, indeed, no limit to the number of peers that can be created by a prime minister, one of our madder constitutional conventions.
Already the Lords is far too cumbersome, and costly, at approaching 1,000 members. Proposals for “early retirement” (everything is relative) are quite inadequate to reverse the Lords’ rapidly declining legitimacy. The political parties cannot agree on what the Lords should look like and do, but they should surely see that the public will not tolerate what it looks like and does now.Reuse content