Party over Principle: Independence in the Lords

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 9th October 2015

The House of Lords is often assumed to be more independent than the Commons because it is less strongly whipped and because it contains Crossbench members who do not have a party affiliation.

But it’s a mistake to assume that this makes the Lords a non-partisan chamber. Over 70% of members of the Upper Chamber take a political whip. Many political Peers are former MPs, or former elected representatives of other legislatures. Our research has found that a quarter of political appointments to the House of Lords between May 1997 and March 2015 were former MPs.

Those who have gained their position through political appointment are generally more active, regular attendees – in converse, the ‘independent’ cross-benchers turn up far less. The phrase ‘working Peer’ is used to describe those Peers who have been appointed by parties to boost their respective parties’ strengths in the Lords, and expectation of regular attendance goes hand in hand with this.

Even with less whipping in the Lords compared to the Commons, party appointees vote as a bloc the vast majority of the time. Between 1999 and 2009, Conservative Peers voted against the Labour government in an average of 97% of votes in whipped divisions. Labour Peers voted against the coalition government in 99% of whipped divisions between 2010 and 2015.

A candidate-centred system such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) would allow people who are independent of any of the parties to stand for election and attract votes on their own merits. It’s quite possible to imagine a situation in which a highly popular person stands in one region on a non-party basis for the second chamber. Voters who normally support a party are free to choose that independent, confident in the knowledge that if he or she is elected overwhelmingly (or defeated) their vote can then be used to help their regular party.

Those peers within parties would also be more independent, as peers would rely on the votes of their constituents, rather than patronage from party leaders. There are no stitch-ups or party lists to ensure the most ‘loyal’ politicians get in. Controlling who has access to a limited amount of safe seats gives parties a lot of power under First Past the Post, with safe constituencies in effect gifted to rising stars within the party, rewarding herd mentality and those who follow the party line. Using a system such as STV which doesn’t have safe seats would free politicians up to concentrate on their constituents’ needs, rather than the needs of party HQ.

The current House of Lords is by no means independent. We need a proportionally-elected Lords that puts individual candidates at the centre – so that voters truly have the final say, rather than party big-wigs.

You can read the full report House of Lords: Fact vs Fiction online.

Illustration by David Biskup

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