On 26 July, footage leaked by the Sun showed Lord Sewel, a senior member of the House of Lords, spending his afternoon in a London flat in the company of sex workers and several lines of an unidentified white powder. Bare-chested, he complains about his reduced rent allowance and shares his assessment of colleagues as ‘right thieves, rogues and bastards’.
The House of Lords, long an oddity in British politics, is becoming an absurdity. In order to bring the House up to date with reality, a major reform in 1999 removed all but 92 hereditary peers and established the dominance of appointed life peers. Unfortunately, successive Prime Ministers have used their appointment powers in ways that were apparently not foreseen. First, they have sent ever more fellow party members rather than non-partisan experts to the House of Lords, in part to shift the balance of power there in their own favour. Second, they have established the House as a source of patronage, appealing to potential donors’ vanity with the implicit prospect of a title, even if any explicit promise is forbidden. Partly as a result, the House of Lords now counts more than 800 members, all entitled to a daily attendance fee of £300.
The latest evidence of this mechanism came on 27 August, when David Cameron elevated a further 45 persons to the Peerage. Among those selected were James Lupton, a banker who donated £2.8 million to the party, Douglas Hogg, a former MP who had to give up his seat in the parliamentary expenses scandal, and a dozen former Conservative politicians. Seven other nominations were reported to have been rejected by the House of Lords Appointment Commission – something which can only be done if there are concerns about financial improprieties.
The unsustainability of an upper chamber that is a byword for waste and nepotism is widely recognised. In the general election of May 2015, both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos called for the introduction of an elected House of Lords. Even the manifesto of the Conservatives stated that they would address ‘issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers.’
In the last Parliament, one of the coalition government’s pledges had been to ‘bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation’ by December 2010. However, when a bill was finally introduced in July 2012, it was scuppered by a minority of rebellious Conservative backbenchers. These same backbenchers now hold even more veto power as part of a slim parliamentary majority. With several internal divisions already emerging, notably over the referendum on Europe, David Cameron seems simply to have concluded that a further attempt at reforming the House of Lords would be a greater liability than leaving it untouched.
The strength of Britain’s parliamentary system is supposed to be that it fosters accountability and decisive government. The first-past-the-post system normally produces majority single-party governments that face few obstacles in shaping legislation. In theory, this should make it easier for the public to evaluate the actions of individual parties while in office, and compare them against those proposed by their competitors. The fact that, in practice, the current government is protecting a wildly unpopular House of Lords therefore highlights some of the system’s vulnerabilities.
First, the failure of House of Lords reform is an extreme example of the problem traditionally associated with first-past-the-post systems, namely, inefficient representation. The iniquity of the Conservatives’ gaining a seat majority on the basis of a vote share of 37 per cent is well known. However, there is the further issue of factions within that majority exerting disproportionate power. In effect, because the opposition almost always votes against a divided government, a determined group of backbenchers can hold up changes to the status quo. As it happens, the number of Conservative parliamentarians who opposed reform to House of Lords in 2012 was 91. Forming less than 15 per cent of the House of Commons, they managed to block a reform supported, according to a contemporary Ipsos poll, by 79 per cent of Britons.
Furthermore, the fact that the Prime Minister felt confident enough this August to engage in overt cronyism points to the downside of weak outside checks on his power. Normally, the absence in Britain of strong procedures enforcing transparency is supposed to be compensated by the existence of an effective opposition. However, the Conservative Party are in a position where much of the parliamentary resistance has simply melted away. The Liberal Democrats are still reeling from their election defeat and have only eight seats left. Labour, meanwhile, has just elected Jeremy Corbyn, sparking conflict within its parliamentary delegation and potentially ruining its ability to hold the government to account. In any case, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have scarcely opposed the Prime Minister’s manoeuvre, in which they gained 11 and 8 Peerages of their own. This lends credence to outsider parties such as UKIP, the Greens and the SNP, who accuse them all of forming a self-serving cartel.
Ultimately, it is the legitimacy of the House of Lords that continues to be eroded. There is speculation that the appointment by David Cameron of so many dubious figures was intended to serve that purpose. The Conservatives are currently in a minority in the House of Lords, with 215 peers against the combined number of 313 for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Although the House of Lords by convention does not reject legislation that is part of an election manifesto, it does frequently propose amendments to bills, which delays their passage and encourages reports in the press. Some of the Conservatives’ legislative proposals, most notably the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, are likely to incur its criticism. Unable to scrap or reform it, the government at the very least lacks the incentive to help the House of Lords fulfil its constitutional role.
This summer, much media attention was devoted to the lewdness of Lord Sewel. The great scandal of British politics, however, is not the conduct of individual members of the House of Lords. It is not even the £93.1 million the institution costs taxpayers annually. Rather, it is the contempt for Britain’s citizens shown by their elected politicians.