When the Blair government was elected in the Labour landslide of 1997, one of New Labour key promises was a reform of the House of Lords. At that time, as any A-level student of politics will tell you, the Lords was filled with dinosaur-like hereditary peers who were 3:1 Conservative over Labour and after Major’s horrific performance, the only true opposition the new executive had. Blair had a mandate to reform… a mandate he didn’t fully complete.
When Jim Callaghan was Home Secretary the Labour party had looked at reforming the Lords, but nothing had been done. Callaghan in 1997 sat as a Lord, and it was his daughter Baroness Jay of Paddington, whom Blair selected to lead the Labour charge against the nepotistic system, a system which gave many ‘rich boys’ access to the legislative process.
Eventually a deal was struck, mostly behind closed doors, between Tony Blair and the Conservative Leader in the House of Lords Lord Cramborne. It would later be discovered that the majority of the deal had been done behind the back of Conservative leader William Hague, leading to a few embarrassing PMQ sessions. 92 hereditary peers would stay, the other 800 or so would be gone. Amongst those to cling on were Lords Cramborne, Strathclyde and Lord Palmer, known as “the man with the silver staircase”.
The issue for Blair then was where to go next. On the one hand, he could create an elected second chamber.. and see it filled with political-party delegates, elected on a pittance of the vote who would ruin the much more structured, organised and professional revising and scrutinising work that many Lords engaged with in favour of theatrical grandstanding of party-politics and demands for more power as the members now had democratic legitimacy… or he could retain the system of life peers and hope for the best. He opted for the latter.
The issue with the Lords now however is it seems nepotism has been replaced by cronyism as Prime Minister after Prime Minister assists in turning the Lords into a day-care centre for outdated, irrelevant and sometimes thought dead former MPs, appointed for unconvincing reasons, to sit in a cushy seat for the rest of their lives whilst claiming £300 per day from the taxpayer and subsidised meals. The sheer number of former MPs in the Lords has now become indefensible and it is done right in front of us as MPs stand down from their constituencies knowing a place in the Lords is almost a sure thing and that they can soon be one of the truculent peers with the titles and robes.
In most countries, when a politician’s elected career is over, it is over. Obama, for example, is at the end of his political career, as France’s Hollande soon will be… but in the UK we seem to be giving MPs and especially former cabinet members a second chance, despite the fact a fair few were rejected by the electorate they once represented.
To make the situation even worse, some aren’t even former MPs, but high profile party figures, and the key serial offender appears to be the Conservatives. Whilst their cohort of former cabinet member peers includes Thatcher’s Lamont and Lawson, Major’s Hesteltine, Lang and Forsyth and Cameron’s Lansley and Hague, we are also blessed with their former Deputy Chairman Lord Dobbs and former Treasurer Lord Magan. I’m sure knowing that we’ll all sleep much safer in our beds.
Labour cannot defend their record either. Whilst Momentum Corbynites are ruling the Commons Labour Party and some of the membership as well, Blairites and Brownites still reign strong in the Lords as we are treated to Lords Blunkett, Darling, Prescott, Mandelson and Hain.
Is it any wonder the terms “Tony’s Cronies” and “Dave’s Faves” came about.
Even the Lib Dems weighed into the ‘fun’ with former leader now Lord Campbell, former whip now Lord Tyler and former Richmond Park MP now Lord Kramer as just a few of their peers cohort.
The only saviour of the disastrous second house is perhaps the crossbenchers. Whilst in the Commons only a single independent sits, the Lords sees over a hundred, including historian and academic Lord Hennessy, former Clerk of the Commons Lord Lisvane, former Permanent Secretary of Her Majesty’s Treasury Lord Macpherson and social entrepreneur and Big Issue Founder Lord Bird. Most of these members keep away from party-politics, control and whips, and our legislation is all the better for it
With any luck Theresa May will see past the smoke screen of this appointment chicanery and take a real, serious and meaningful look at the present membership of the Lords with a view to making changes. Whether those changes be an end to life peerages, a reduction of the size of the house or much stronger scrutiny of appointments, a change of that sort will be appreciated by many.
If I may end on a note that I hope we can all agree on… We’ve seen “Tony’s Cronies” and “Dave’s Faves”… let’s not see “May’s Baes”!
Article written by Matthew J Eyre