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The not so exclusive House of Lords

The not so exclusive House of Lords

🕔22.Oct 2013

I know almost nothing about gentlemen’s clubs, so I’ve always wondered about the validity of the claim still occasionally made about the House of Lords being the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London.

Literally, with a slightly higher proportion of women members than the Commons, it obviously isn’t true. But I assume that numerically it probably is. Those ‘first division’ Pall Mall/St James’ clubs must surely have longer membership lists than the Lords. Still, if ever there were any doubt, it surely must be now.

The thought was prompted, of course, by the induction into the Lords last week of the now Lord Whitby of Harborne, who became its 836th, or possibly 785th, member – numbers that suggest an exclusivity little greater and, to me, rather less enviable, than that of the Marylebone Cricket Club. 

But few, I imagine, would begrudge our former Council leader his moment of glory, particularly after those long months of waiting following David Cameron’s decision, having created no fewer than 117 peers in his first year as PM, to forgo temporarily the pleasure of packing the second chamber with his party’s friends and funders.

He needn’t have worried. Peer creation is more than a pleasure for Cameron. More like a drug: he just can’t stop himself. Mike Whitby’s elevation was one of 30 announced in August – along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Doreen Lawrence and other assorted more-or-less worthies – and, already he’s at it again.  Even as Lord Whitby was finding himself a seat in the (at least potentially) massively overcrowded chamber, another list of appointees was being lined up – all, you understand, in the cause of political balance.

There’s long been a kind of convention thingy in our uncodified British Constitution, not that we must have the most hyper-inflated and undemocratic second chamber in the so-called democratic world (though we do), but that no single party should have an overall majority – which we also manage, primarily through the presence of 200-plus crossbenchers, unaffiliated to any party grouping.

The rationale is that, if either big party had a majority, the House would be prevented from effectively carrying out its main function of scrutinising, revising and improving legislation.

But then came the Coalition, who decided the Labour-dominated House they inherited following 13 years of Labour Prime Ministerial nominations had to be adjusted to reflect the vote share secured by the main parties – though not by UKIP, the Greens or the BNP, of course – at the 2010 General Election.

But in this reform-resistant legislature, where not even deadbeats or convicted criminals have to retire, this inevitably means the addition of shedloads of Conservatives and Lib Dems, producing today a membership larger than at any time since the clear-out of more than 650 hereditary peers in 1999.

And Lord Whitby brought the number to 836. If there were room for peers to have their own seats, desks, phones, computers, lockers and cloakroom pegs – which of course there isn’t – 836 would probably be his number.

That’s the figure you’d expect to find on the Lords’ home page of the parliamentary website. Nowadays, though, as if out of embarrassment, the figure given more prominence is of those currently eligible to sit as legislators, which knocks it down to a mere 785.

The ‘ineligibles’, since you didn’t ask, are a few disqualified by being senior judges, and a larger bunch on what is enigmatically, and possibly euphemistically, termed simply ‘leave of absence’. However, since at least some of these can presumably return from leave sometime, I personally prefer the larger number.

Lord Whitby may, for understandable reasons, disagree. For, among the 785 ‘eligibles’ – 672 life peers, 89 hereditaries, and 24 Anglican bishops – he became the 222nd Conservative, and the one who, as it were, put his party over the top, overtaking the 221 Labour peers and becoming once again the largest group in the House. It’s not enough, even with the 99 Lib Dems, to give the Coalition parties a majority, but nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree, a definite distinction.

But, returning to the 836, even this degree of hyper-inflation may be barely the half of it. Suppose the opinion polls are right, that Labour wins the 2015 election with close to 40% of the vote, and Lib Dem support collapses. The House’s party proportionality will have to be readjusted again, this time adding whole garage-loads of Labour peers to counter-balance the now greatly over-represented Lib Dems. Even a hung parliament, the Electoral Reform Society reckons, could increase membership to a definitely non-exclusive 1,400.

They’ll be fighting for air – to which one possible solution was that only half-seriously (I think) suggested this week by Admiral Lord West: that the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, instead of being scrapped, might more usefully be berthed alongside the Palace of Westminster to accommodate the House’s ever-growing numbers.

It was the Lib Dems who were particularly keen, having lost much of the rest of their constitutional reform agenda, to change all this. Their manifesto had proposed a fully elected second chamber with considerably fewer members – watered down in the Coalition Agreement to a mainly elected second chamber, eventually, and in the meantime slightly smaller than at present.

The House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 was eventually withdrawn in the face of opposition from rebel Conservatives to the principle and from Labour to the process proposed for its parliamentary examination. But it was, to deliberately split infinitives and mix metaphors, such a dog’s breakfast of pussyfooting compromises that it’s hard to imagine electors being any more inspired by it than they were by the Alternative Vote.

The reformed House would (from 2015) have comprised 120 elected members, serving 15-year terms, rising to 360 by 2025; 30 appointed members rising to 90; 21 bishops, declining to 12; eight ‘ministerial members’; plus an initial ‘transitional membership’ of no fewer than two-thirds of the existing House.

In short, the ‘Great Reform’, for which we’d have been waiting for well over a century, would have produced a still mainly unelected second chamber, still larger than the elected Commons, and hardly noticeably smaller than the monstrosity it was replacing.

Considering the minimal esteem in which politicians of all stripes are held nowadays, and an estimated public cost per peer of over £130,000 a year, it’s tempting to wonder what the result might have been in a multi-option referendum offering a choice of, say, the above reform or the abolition of a second chamber altogether.

By chance, Irish voters had almost precisely that opportunity a fortnight ago, when they voted in a referendum to amend the Constitution by abolishing the 60-member Seanad (Senate or Upper House) of the Irish Parliament. 

The Fine Gael Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, ran a blatantly populist campaign – emphasising that abolition would mean fewer politicians and savings of €20 million a year – to which most of the other parties signed up, and which opinion polls suggested appealed to voters too.

Ireland wouldn’t be the first smallish country to jettison its second chamber – New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden have all done so – and the Seanad’s image is not dissimilar from that of the House of Lords here: a retirement home for members of the Lower House, undemocratic, providing additional patronage for the PM.  Compared to the Lords, though, it’s almost recklessly democratic, with the PM limited to 11 appointees, six elected by graduates of the Universities of Ireland and Dublin (no comment!), and the remainder indirectly elected by councillors and parliamentarians.

It was understandable that the abolitionists were confident, but on this occasion the polls proved misleading. The result, though close, was decisive enough: 51.7% against abolition – which makes one wonder if UK electors would have been as supportive of our parliamentary institutions.

When the abolition option has been included in recent polling questions, it has generally received around 30% support, compared to around 40% for a wholly or partly elected House, leaving 40% with either no opinion or favouring no change.

But, supposing we’d had a binding referendum vote on, say, a fully elected 450-member ‘Senate’ or second chamber, costing an estimated £100 million a year; complete abolition of a second chamber, saving at least £20 million a year; or the status quo, I for one wouldn’t have much confidence in predicting the outcome.

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