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Without coalition, the Conservatives will be greatly outnumbered in the Upper House


My Times column on a perverse outcome of the election:

In one respect last week’s election result has made David Cameron’s life more difficult. While gaining seats in the Commons from the Liberal Democrats, he has effectively lost them in the Lords. That is to say, the 101 Lib Dem peers will presumably all cross the aisle from the government benches to the opposition benches when the Lords next meet.

There they will squeeze in among 214 Labour, one Green, two Plaid Cymru and two Ukip peers. There will be much jostling for space, whereas we on the Conservative side can spread out a bit. This bodes ill for the government winning votes, however. Do the maths: 224 Tories against 315 Labour and Lib Dem peers, assuming they vote the same way. (There are 779 active peers at present.)

Even when it was 325 coalition peers against 214 Labour peers at the end of the last parliament, government defeats were not infrequent, because Labour, aided by some of the 178 cross-benchers (many of whom lean left), have sometimes managed to outnumber supporters of the coalition. It becomes hard now to see how the Conservatives will ever win a controversial vote. There will be plenty of those: on Europe, on devolution, on the Human Rights Act, on the BBC licence fee, and so on.

Not that there is much love lost between the two main opposition parties — just as there were moments, especially when the Lib Dems voted down boundary reform in the Lords, when relations between the Conservatives and Lib Dems were poor. One is reminded of a second world war joke. Allies to Germany: we had the Italians last time; it’s your turn now.

Does it matter if the House of Lords is deadlocked? Peers are well used to the conventions by which they restrain their own temptations to defy the elected chamber. The Lords does not handle finance bills, it does not challenge legislation for which the government has sought a specific mandate in its manifesto (the Salisbury convention) and in the last resort it can be brushed aside by the use of the Parliament Act to insist on respecting the will of the elected house.

Yes, but there are still opportunities to filibuster and resort to procedural tricks. Labour often uses uncertainty about whether and when it will test the opinion of the House to keep the Tories tied down and unable to slope off to the opera, though, to be fair, opera-going is just as often a Labour habit. So some long evenings beckon.

The Lib Dems, armed with their new and largely bogus theory that they have been punished for championing compassion and opposing grievance and fear, may be only too ready to join in the fun. Meanwhile, the over-representation of Lib Dems in the Lords may get worse after a dissolution honours list. Add Lord Cable, Lord Davey, Lord Alexander, Lord Laws, Lord Hughes, Lord Beith, Lord Campbell and co, and the party could have many more peers than their share of the votes last week would imply: 8 per cent of the vote, 14 per cent of the seats in the upper House. This is ironic given their perpetual complaints about the fairness of the political system, and their fury at the failure of Lords reform in 2013.

By contrast, the Tories and indeed all other political parties are under-represented in the Lords compared with their electoral vote. Ukip is now especially unfairly treated: 12.6 per cent of the vote, 0.3 per cent of the Lords seats. But the most under-represented party in the Lords is the Scottish National party. Whereas Plaid Cymru, Ukip, the Greens and the Ulster unionist parties all have peers, the Scottish nationalists have none at all. It has been their choice to refuse to appoint any.

Now Alex Salmond and his 55 “progressives” are camped in the Commons, they may quickly find that it’s a pity not to be able to answer when challenged and criticised in the upper chamber. From Lord Foulkes on the left to Lord Forsyth on the right, the case for the Union and against Scottish independence is often passionately made but goes unanswered.

Since peers are unsackable, short of criminal conviction, the only way to redress the imbalances is to appoint more peers. True, there is now a formal retirement process, which 17 peers have taken up since it came in last August, including most recently Lord Ashcroft, but there is not a big incentive to use it.

The coalition agreement of 2010 committed the last government to striving to reflect the vote share of the last general election in the make-up of the Lords. But that is a recipe for ever more appointments and the number of peers is already too high for many practical purposes. There are rumours abroad that up to 50 more peers may be heading for the red benches shortly.

The modern purpose of the House of Lords, accidentally arrived at over the past century, is to improve legislation by raising problems, scrutinising detail and debating the implications. Given that it is stuffed with expertise from almost every profession, it’s like a huge think-tank when at its best, like a trade union of special interests at its worst. More and more though, it is a place for scoring party political points.

So David Cameron may have to be sparing in the legislation he puts before parliament to avoid getting bogged down in guerrilla warfare on the red benches. To put it another way, he would be well advised to do much of his policy making by regulation and statutory instrument, rather than primary legislation.

The reform of the Lords is undoubtedly coming, but it cannot now be seen in isolation from other constitutional reforms, notably Scottish devolution. Lord Salisbury’s recent suggestion is that the Lords should become a directly elected federal parliament, while the Commons becomes an English Parliament, with Scots MPs moving to Edinburgh to become the second, revising chamber of the Scottish parliament — likewise Wales and Northern Ireland.

That is a radical option and may not appeal to David Cameron as a good use of lots of parliamentary time. But something will have to give, if only to limit numbers. Meanwhile, the Palace of Westminster is due a £5 billion refurbishment or it will crumble away. That probably means moving the Lords out to some temporary accommodation for several years, while the Commons borrows our chamber. If we choose somewhere sufficiently inconvenient, perhaps there will be a rush of retirements.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times