Voting patterns in the House of Lords rubbish claims of its independence

Darren Hughes
Darren Hughes

Posted on the 11th January 2018

Article first published by

It is anticipated that Theresa May will appoint up to a dozen Tory peers this month – which could be joined by a handful of Labour members and some from the DUP.

It is likely she will be motivated by a desire to bolster the chamber’s Conservative ranks. Currently there are 248 Tory members from a total of 794 – meaning they are heavily outnumbered. This has resulted in recent defeats for her government, including when peers voted to give parliament a veto on the final outcome of Brexit negotiations.

Her big concern now will be ensuring she is able to get the EU withdrawal Bill through the House of Lords in the coming months.

Of course, filling the chamber with political appointees is nothing novel. Nor is wanting to ensure your legislation is passed.

But it raises questions when a country’s ‘revising’ chamber can be packed to the rafters with loyalists to overcome opposition.

The traditional defence has been that the upper chamber is, by default, more independent than the Commons, and less driven by partisan politics. With less power for the whips, the Lords can be a bastion of free-thinking – on top of the fact that many peers sit as Crossbench members who do not have a party affiliation (currently they number 182).

But recent analysis by the Electoral Reform Society has dispelled this myth.

The majority of Peers (70%) took a party whip in the 2016/17 session. And few Lords vote against the party line.

Of the 252 Conservative Peers who voted at least once, 78% never voted against the government last year. Only three of those Peers voted for the government under 90% of the time.

And of the 200 Labour Peers, 20% never voted with the government – and 100 voted against the government more than 90% of the time in the last session.

But what about the Crossbenchers?

Sadly, they don’t soften this level of partisanship: they tend to vote less. 41% of eligible crossbench and non-affiliated peers voted fewer than ten times in 2016/17.

Among the recommendations of the recent Burns report – which appeared to have cross-party support – was that political appointments would be shared between the parties in line with the result of the previous general election.

If later this month the number of Conservative appointments does dramatically outweigh those from Labour, this would mark none other than a total rejection of the recommendations – and even minimal reform.

To put it bluntly, arguments about the House of Lords’ supposed independence are rendered virtually meaningless when prime ministers can override any semblance of it through cronyism. This month’s rumoured appointments appear to prove that.

Ultimately, wholescale change is needed so that appointments are no longer made for partisan reasons. If we truly want the House of Lords to be a revising chamber fit for the 21st century, both representative and accountable to British citizens, then we need a fully- and fairly- elected upper chamber – one which isn’t bursting at the seams.

Read the Electoral Reform Society’s recent report on the House of Lords: The High Cost of Small Change.

  • dred

    The situation could easily be overcome by having an elected second chamber.That of course will never happen because the House of Commons and the governing party would never have their way.

  • Alexander Scott

    Conflation of two separate issues, to support a pre-decided outcome. It’s true that the Prime Minister of the day has excessive power over the appointments process, but that does not mean that the only alternative is a fully-elected chamber.

    If anything, a fully-elected chamber would be less independent and more partisan. It’s not reasonable to expect Independent candidates to win in significant numbers, when faced with the spending and campaigning clout of the Parties – especially over larger constituencies than the Commons. And when the Parties are choosing their candidates, as with the Commons, they will inevitably choose the ones who will give them the best return on their investment in terms of toeing the Party line.

    Voting records are at best a very shaky method of judging a Lord’s worth. They do not distinguish between a decision based on one’s own expertise and judgement – supposedly the reason for being there – and one taken directly from Party HQ with barely the most cursory scrutiny. More importantly, they do not distinguish between one who does not vote because they can’t be bothered and one who acknowledges that the decision lies outside their area of expertise. This is particularly relevant to the Cross-benchers, who are generally appointed specifically for their contributions in a given area. Simply focusing on the presence of expertise without taking into account its limitations is akin to expecting a mechanic to perform brain surgery, or a surgeon to fix your car.

    • Ringstone

      The five questions to the powerful:
      WHAT POWER HAVE YOU GOT? We can delay and subvert Government business in the Lords
      WHERE DID YOU GET IT FROM? Party patronage, usually for services rendered
      IN WHOSE INTERESTS DO YOU EXERCISE IT? I refer you to the answer above, debts to pay.
      TO WHOM ARE YOU ACCOUNTABLE? No one really, certainly not you!
      HOW CAN WE GET RID OF YOU? You can’t.

      The Lords don’t come out well do they?
      Make them elected and honestly political.
      Two advantages, vis persistent scandal, we could demand that they don’t just check in for expenses…and we could sack them, which tends to concentrate minds I think.

      • barrydavies

        I thought you were referring to the eu commission at first, which has far greater powers over our laws than the Lords.

        • Ringstone

          Oh, it applies to them too, bigly.
          The democratic deficit, indeed the antidemocratic nature of the EU, was what secured my vote for “out”.

      • Alexander Scott

        Again, you’re taking a false dichotomy. Pointing out the flaws in the current system – of which there are many, no doubt – does not automatically mean that the single alternative that you propose is the best option.

        Let’s put those same five questions to an elected house, shall we?
        What power have you got?
        The power to delay and subvert the business of the Commons and the Government.
        Where did you get it?
        By being the most loyal to the Party’s interests, so that they’ll let us run for election with the advantage of their brand recognition and their campaigning networks.
        In whose interests do you exercise it?
        In the interests of the Party, which controls who gets the prime ‘safe seat’ re-election slots.
        To whom are you accountable?
        To the Party whips and selection panels. The public like to think it’s them, but you’d be surprised how quickly they hold their nose when our friends in the media tell them what they could get instead if they betray brand loyalty.
        How can you be got rid of?

        Deselection for disloyalty to the Party line. Occasionally by a significant enough swing in vote share, but it’s easy to redeploy to another constituency if it looks permanent.

        About the only advantage that I can see over the current system is that it limits seat inflation. It puts the political games front and centre and permanent rather than having them backstage and transient, but in a way that’s both advantage and disadvantage – it makes it more open, but at the same time makes it worse.

        Now let’s put those questions to a ‘properly’ appointed house.
        What power have you got?
        The power to delay and modify the business of the Government and the Commons. Also the power to start legislation moving, if it becomes clear the Commons and Government aren’t addressing a clear and present need.

        Where did you get it from?
        The appointments commission, which isn’t controlled by any one Party and has a specific remit to choose based on needed ability and expertise.

        In whose interests do you exercise it?
        In the interests of the Country, as we see it. Admittedly, sometimes ‘as we see it’ will be biased by our backgrounds – but that’s why there’s a range of backgrounds represented.

        To whom are you accountable?
        To the appointments commission. If we’ve not acted accordingly to our role, then we don’t get re-appointed at the end of our term. If it’s serious, then our appointment can be revoked – but it takes a lot to go that far.

        How can we get rid of you?
        You the public can’t do it directly: it’s not our job to be popular, but to provide honest and open consultation even if it’s unpopular. If we’ve done a bad job of that, or even if we’ve done a good job in an area that’s no longer relevant, then our appointment is allowed to lapse at the end of our term.

  • barrydavies

    There needs to be a reduction in the overall number of members of the Lords, currently it is at least twice the size it should be.

    • Jonjo

      Nowhere near enough of a reduction!

      The current House of Lords and its size is a disgrace and has no place in a democracy as none of them are elected. For example, in America (with four times our population and fifty times our size), its equivalent function is carried out by 100 Senators – ALL elected.

      Their equivalent of the House of Commons, incidentally, has only 430 members compared to our 650 MPs (supplemented of course by large “Parliamentary Assemblies” in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland).

      • stuart grice

        on these numbers our mp’s should be cut to 110 mp’s and about 25 in the lords, but all should be elected

  • Pamela Crummay

    What’s the point of discussing when our esteemed Honourable Member, our wonderful Prime Minister, is allowed to appoint new Tory peers, ad nauseom, always guaranteeing a pro-vote. Don’t you just love our “democratic” country..?

  • John Cartledge

    It saddens me that ERS repeatedly puts the cart before the horse by discussing the composition of the second chamber rather than its purpose. If its function is to be a long stop intercepting bad decisions taken by the first house, surely it would make more sense to address the cause of these directly? Nobody has suggested that the other three legislatures in Britain need another house to crawl over the actions of the first, or that their legislative output is inferior for want of upper chambers at Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Stormont – indeed, Northern Ireland’s senate was scrapped years ago.
    In countries with federal systems, there is a case for a second house to represent the interests of the states or provinces, though this can be done either well (Germany) or badly (USA). But elsewhere, what is their point? Are the Candadian provinces (all of whose upper houses were abolished) worst served by their legislatures than the US states (all of which, except Nebraska, have bicameral assemblies)? If a case for an upper house can be made, discussion of its composition becomes relevant. But I do not see or hear ERS trying to make it, and I therefore remain unconvinced.

  • Patrick C

    I think the main thing is to ban all members of the upper house from belonging to political parties. Then maybe have them half appointed on merit (as already happens with a few) and half elected for, say, 10 year terms. Individuals seeking election would have to campaign on their achievements, experience and personal political values. So we could have, say, 200 lords appointed and 200 elected on a rough county basis.

  • The Upper Chamber is peopled by chaps who have already collected a bundle and are able to view politics without considering the financial effects. They should be straightforward. Any tradition of independence is a recent tradition. When monarchy was strong (up to George III) they were the land-owners producing food and MPs and were almost entirely the King’s friends. It was Castlereagh who established new ministerial policy of diminishing the monarchy after the unparliamentary George III so, by the time of Victoria, the Crown was a figurehead and fig leaf. So we are talking of a tradition of a century.

    Reform of the Lords does not require their removal – that would be fatal given the collapse of ethics and morality in the Commons under the merchants’ commercial hegemony. What is required is the end of the factional system in the Lords. No more Tory or Labour, no more whips, just free-thinking successful Englishmen who are willing to help steer the ship of state.

  • Ian Rosam

    Why are there more Lords than MPs? The system needs reform. The very purpose of its existence needs examining.

  • Michael Oldman

    To try and correct the bloated House of Lords, I would suggest that with immediate effect, new appointments be made only when current incumbents retire (can this be done?) or decease (preferable). Then appointments should only be made on the basis of 1 new appointment for every 3 relinquishing. Qualified recommenders (political parties plus institutions with a royal charter plus the military but not any religious organisations) would submit short lists. The decision should be made by the monarch. Since we would not wish to overburden our long serving and long suffering monarch, this should be delegated to a committee chaired by Prince Charles and include William, Harry & Anne. Party donors should be automatically excluded and the honours committee should vet everyone for scurrilous activities (sexual exploits excluded).

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