House of Lords poised for more combative role

As it is an unelected body, the House of Lords does not have the same powers as the House of Commons — or an elected upper chamber such as the US Senate. A chamber of “wise heads” with a mandate to revise and scrutinise the government’s legislation, the Lords will regularly amend bills but will rarely veto laws proposed in the Commons.

Lord O’Donnell, former head of the civil service and a cross-bencher, joked at an Institute for Government event that the opposition benches in the upper chamber were beginning to resemble the Spanish resort of Torremolinos in high summer tells the FT.

“Get up early, get your towel out and stick it on the seat, otherwise you are not going to get in there and it is going to be really interesting how this works,” he said. “I think the House of Lords will be very bolshie about some of these constitutional things.”

The House of Lords grew over the last parliament from 707 peers in 2010 to 778 in 2015. There are now 224 Conservatives versus 213 Labour peers and 100 Lib Dems. There are also 178 cross-benchers who are not affiliated to any party and vote as they please.

Labour and the Lib Dems could form a formidable bloc, if they chose to work together. But they must tread carefully; peers have a constitutional duty under the Salisbury Convention not to oppose government legislation promised in an election manifesto.

The doctrine was devised after Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945 to protect Clement Attlee’s administration against the Conservative majority in the Lords — there were only 16 Labour peers at the time — and allow it to deliver its nationalisation and welfare state programme.

Labour peers are reluctant to be too partisan and will sieve through the government’s programme to pick out issues most likely to draw crossbench support — such as the Tories’ efforts to replace the Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights.

“There might be ping pong, but the Lords will not stick their necks out too often,” says Baroness Taylor, a Labour former chief whip for Tony Blair. “They will be strong on a small number of areas — but not universally opposed.”

Over a lunch of poached salmon and green beans in the Lords’ canteen, Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin says she cannot quite imagine a rowdy, combative Lords.

“It’s like an old-fashioned school with the cloakroom downstairs [each peer has a personal peg] and us all bumping into each other after a few weeks away inquiring about each other’s breaks. It is very welcoming and not at all tribal. John Gardiner [deputy Tory chief whip] was seen hugging Dianne Hayter [Labour frontbench peer] while she was weeping over the [election] result.”

A daily attendee, Baroness Jenkin reckons there are 200 or so working peers who come to the Lords every day, while the average attendance on any given day is 450. Peers can claim a £300 daily attendance allowance to cover their expenses on the understanding they attend a sitting in the House. They are expected to claim £150 when they only turn up for a few hours.

There are limits to how much Mr Cameron can shift the balance of power in his favour during this parliament, but there is a drive get Conservative peers either to attend more regularly or retire and make room for fresh faces. There are 40 peers on leave of absence — some too infirm to come to the House.

The prime minister has also added some new active peers to his benches: last week he announced six Lords appointments — including former cabinet minister Francis Maude and Jim O’Neill, former chief economist at Goldman Sachs — as part of his cabinet reshuffle.

During the 13 years of the Brown/Blair government, Labour was defeated almost 500 times in the Lords, says Professor Robert Hazell, who works in the constitution unit at the Institute for Government. During the coalition government years, the rate of Lords’ defeats almost halved as the government benches swelled with Lib Dem and Tory peers.

“Those Lib Dem peers . . . are back on the opposition benches and I think we are going to see quite a lot of action in the House of Lords particularly on the constitutional issues and civil liberties,” says Prof Hazell. “That is where a lot of parliamentary opposition will come from.”

But this vision is difficult to align with a cohort of Lords whose average age is 70 and have rich lives filled with interests beyond the politics of the House.

Lord Glasman, a Labour peer who is a good couple of decades younger than many of his colleagues, shudders at the thought of a rowdier chamber as he lines up to be sworn in. “I will be appalled,” he says the Labour peer. “This is the House of Lords!”