A constitutional elephant: a quick look at the House of Lords

This article was first published as part of our weekly news column on 25 March 2021. In light of Kier Stamer’s promise in November 2022 that, if Labour wins the next elections, it would reform the House of Lords prompted us to re-post it in its own right. We haven’t updated it so some of the statistics may now be out of date. It doesn’t, however seem that anything substantial has changed since it was written: which is kind of the point…

The Sunday Times on 21 March 2021 led with a story about the extraordinary constitutional elephant that is the House of Lords. With 800-odd members, only China has a larger legislative assembly. Britain’s upper house can only accommodate about 400 in its chamber so the organisation is only able to function at all because of the persistent absenteeism of about half its members. Oddest of all, 85 of these are hereditary peers, survivals of a partial cull in 1999. They top themselves up when one dies (virtually no crime is horrible enough to sanction their forced removal – though they can resign – so this is the main method of winnowing) with a system of by-elections that even the Papacy would probably reject as lacking inclusiveness. Their average age, The Sunday Times reports, is 71. All are male and white, Nearly half went to Eton. Most are significant landowners. None these things necessarily make them bad people (we’ll pass over matters such as how much they claim in expenses and how reluctant they are to ask questions, make speeches, vote or sit on committees) but it hardly makes them accurate representatives of 21st-century Britain.

In a way, this criticism is beside the point as the House of Lords has never claimed to be representative. Certainly none of its other members are representative either, except perhaps of the interests that they espouse. A look at the current roster shows that most of the life peers, who make up the majority, are former MPs: they would have been representative when in the Commons but can hardly been so now they’ve left. There are also several former diplomats and a fair smattering of people from the worlds of business, charity, academia, the civil service and the arts as well as others from more diverse backgrounds including a former TV presenter, a former dentist and a former England cricket captain. There are also 24 bishops and two archbishops; though what they’re doing in a legislative chamber is anyone’s guess.

So, we’re talking here about an organisation that represents not so much the people – the Commons has that mundane responsibility – as a state of mind; a Britain in which the local squire (often also the MP), abetted by the local priest, is paternalistic and, within his locality, something between influential and omnipotent. The right upbringing and the right school automatically produce the right stuff. Extensive land-ownership is further proof of a divine unction which confers the right – indeed, the obligation – to exert an influence on national life. The longer the anachronism has continued, the harder it is to shake off the idea that it’s perhaps for our own good and that his hotch-potch of aristocrats, prelates and superannuated politicians do indeed present the best way of expressing and realising our own fumbling aspirations. It’s hallowed by time and in a mad way logical, once you’ve accepted the idea of a hereditary monarchy (which many do). It certainly retains some resonance: look at how many of us (myself included) watched Downton Abbey.

Viewed in this light, it’s easier to see why reform has proved impossible. Various attempts have been made but each has foundered on a mixture of filibustering, political inertia and, most importantly, the lack of any clear and widely acceptable idea of what the new model would look like. The idea of electing all the members, hardly novel, probably terrifies the large parties as this would revive the idea of proportional representation. Appointment – justified on the grounds of making the peers above the short-term vulgarity of election concerns – is too valuable a political tool for any government to relinquish (it does have some merit, assuming we could agree who should appoint them and for how long). Inheritance is now apparently no longer good enough for the whole house but it is for about 10%, which on its own shows how muddled the thinking has become. All in all, leaving things largely as they are seems by far the easiest way out.

The argument that the House of Lords is valuable in calming over-exuberance by the government or the Commons is specious. Armed with the powers it has, any group of people – fishmongers, say, former contestants on Mastermind or people chosen at random from those with a “P” in their surname – might have fared just as well. Any increase in democracy might also demand an increase in powers, the last thing most members of the Commons want. On a scale of burning national issues it probably doesn’t test that high either. The situation is thus on which neither the two main parties, nor the House of Commons generally nor the House of Lords itself can see any benefit in change while most of the population is indifferent: not a promising recipe for reform. One slow-burning plan is to stop the by-elections for hereditary peers so causing them to wither away. However, there are several current ones in their 40s and 50s who could last some time yet. 23 have been members for 40 or more years, eight for 50 or more and one, Lord Denham, for over 70: longevity, in the convivial and subsidised surrounding of the Upper House, is clearly yet another barrier to reform.

An argument against changing the monarchy is that there is a certain magic of ceremony, tradition and continuity that many people can approve of, or at least accept, in preference to the political implications of a presidency. The hereditary peers in the Lords perhaps believe that they bask in the reflection of this. It’s certainly a potent reminder of the House’s, and our own, history, when the monarch dealt out patronage to their supporters in the form of titles. The vestiges of this still survive and a new type of patronage, from the political parties, has grown up alongside it. Whether any of this is tinged with magic, apart from in the eyes of the grateful recipients, is another matter.

The photograph at the head of this post was taken from the excellent article It’s official: the House of Lords is completely bust, published by the Electoral Reform Society in 2015. Most of the points this makes are still alarmingly relevant.

Brian Quinn


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