Meet the Lords was the BBC’s three-part series on the inner workings of the House of Lords. At its most critical it showed how few peers bother doing anything, although a large proportion still claim their full allowance. For the most part the programme was a tribute to the work of the £300-a-day “unsalaried” parliamentarians with no democratic mandate.
The programme maker’s idea of a rebel is Baroness King (Labour) and Lord Bird (Crossbencher) — but not because they condemn this relic of Britain’s feudalism. Lord Bird says “bugger” in his maiden speech and tells the kitchen staff he too used to work in a kitchen and he was a member of the WRP. Baroness King believes things move very slowly, most peers do nothing, but she’s different — she wears trainers. Mild critics like Lord Tyler (Lib Dem) praise the oversight and expertise that can be garnered from the debates in and lobbying of the second chamber.
Much of the legislation passed to them from the House of Commons is poor. The only way it gets improved is by passing it through the Lords — a hodge podge of former Cabinet Ministers, “experts”, friends of previous Prime Ministers, bishops and the landed gentry.
Powerful Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the House, aka Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, is very worried that the House has become too powerful and sometimes attempts to overturn the government’s wishes. This is a particular problem for the current government because crossbenchers and other parties outnumber Tory peers — the result of Blair, Brown and Cameron avoiding reform of the Lords by expanding it with life peers.
Elsewhere we are treated to the spectacle of Lord Palmer, one of, as the programme continually repeats, “only 92 hereditary peers” Lord Palmer lives in a house that cost £400 million to build in today’s money. He is a real grown-up, though; when watching a Labour MP call for an end to hereditary peers, he says you have to take this sort of thing on the chin and just get on with your work — that is eating subsidised meals, claiming £300 a day and drafting written questions to the House about whether they will bring back the TV room where he used to enjoy watching cricket.
Lord Borwick is a Tory whip who is doing his best to get the Government’s Housing Bill through. The legislation makes affordable housing scarcer and protects millionaire landlords and property developers. Lord Borwick is the man for the job because he knows a lot about housing: he is a partner in a firm dealing in real estate and director of five of its subsidiaries. He’s also the chairman of two holding companies and a director of a further subsidiary. On film we see him being driven round some of his latest property developments.
Lord West of Spithead, former Admiral and Labour Minister, is very proud to show off his great achievement — some extra flagpoles to ensure Scottish, Welsh and English flags can be flown at all times at the Palace of Westminster. Sadly this is not the only silly part of “tradition” we are asked to take seriously.
The fact that Black Rod — the Head of Security and House Operations Manager — wears tights and carries different swords for different occasions is something the British people are supposed to be immensely proud of. As a student, I once met a previous Black Rod and asked whether junking stupid costumes, writing on vellum, and wasting time on ceremonies might make the work of the legislature feel slightly more like it existed in the real world. My comments were treated with polite disdain: “Millions of people watch the State Opening of Parliament… these traditions are part of the very fabric of Britain”.
The current Labour leadership, both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, and even large numbers of the Labour right have called for the abolition of the House of Lords. Right-wing former Labour MP Austin Mitchell wrote a whole book on it! Yet, Corbyn has so far failed to take up the issue or other democratic questions. Amid press furore over how he would relate to the Queen if elected Prime Minister, Corbyn said that in the current circumstance he would have to interact with the Queen, but would like to see the monarchy, the House of Lords and other feudal remnants abolished. Yet he appointed peers into the Shadow Cabinet. That should not have happened.
The House of Lords may have recently amended Brexit legislation for the good (but it didn’t challenge the government when its amendments were removed), but any serious radical, socialist and pro-working class Labour Government would find itself forever hampered by the existence of the second chamber.
A Workers’ Government would also need oversight, accountability and restraints. But these should come from broader democratic structures rooted in society. The kind of reforms that we should advocate, as well as abolition of the Lords, could be an executive elected by and accountable to parliament, annual elections, the right to recall MPs, and the opening up of workplace and economic democracy. Sadly we have not had even minor tinkering suggested by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.