Essential Modernisation or Excessive Meddling? Labour, Wakeham and the Lords Reforms

S. L. Garlick

Originally published in 1999/2000, Issue 1– Interstate’s 35th Anniversary Issue


Tony Blair has long been committed to the abolition of hereditary peers; the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto promised that this would happen. Labour knew that reform would be difficult and would upset many people of influence, so they took their time and waited for the right moment. When that painful moment came, the abolition of hereditary peers was revolution by stealth.

There was no fanfare, and no death knell after the debate was over. Even though Blair, Baroness Jay (Leader of the House of Lords) and the like might feel this to be the right moment, the latest piece of New Labour “modernisation” has been met with a mixed reaction. The Royal Commission set up to look at how best to reform the Second Chamber, chaired by Lord Wakeham, made a number of recommendations on the make-up of the Lords. This article looks at some of these recommendations and the context in which they were made.

Hereditary peers have already been abolished. No longer do they sit, 751-strong, able to send any bill unfavourable to them, such as those concerning country sports, back to the Commons. Now, having been subjected to the humiliation of being judged on a 75-word manifesto to justify their retention in their ancestors’ stamping ground, only 92 remain, elected by fellow hereditary peers. Each of the 92 will be allowed to stay, but they will be the last hereditaries in Britain’s oldest parliamentary institution, dating back to the Norman Conquest.

Presently, white males dominate the Lords. They generally come from what used to be called the upper classes. Now, in a process that has been underway, to a certain extent, through Labour’s appointment of life peers since their election, a new, more representative House is being touted. Peers are being appointed from outside that traditional white, upper-class base; examples include the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and the boss of Planet 24 Television, Waheed Ali. Lord Ali, in his thirties, is a man perhaps most famous for launching the programme “The Big Breakfast” and the television career of Chris Evans. Lord Ali also fulfils one of the other criteria stipulated by the Commission: he is classed, although the term is crude, as being a member of the “ethnic minorities”. By casting the net further, the selectors of life peers will lend the House of Lords a much more rounded, multi-cultural view of Britain. That is, provided all cultures, religions and ideals, and not just a token number, are represented sufficiently. The signs are, for example, that, of the Christians, only the Protestant denomination will be allowed representatives, along with other religions active in the UK, a fact which will no doubt anger Roman Catholics and other denominations. This shows that not all groups have been appeased by the new set-up.

The part of the reforms that has excited the most debate is the proposed election of around 100 of the 500 peers in the Second Chamber. The electorate here in Wales already votes for three political chambers (the Commons, the European Parliament and the Welsh Assembly), using three different electoral systems. Because of this high use of the electorate, the Wakeham Commission has proposed that an electoral college vote instead. Of course, there may be other motives. After the question marks over the level of high-party control on the electoral college selecting Labour’s Mayor of London candidate, some commentators are worried that Blair and his missionaries may hijack the Lords equivalent. This is all speculation. Nonetheless, the fact is that people are worried, and if one electoral college can be manipulated, another certainly can.

The other peers will, it seems, be appointed by the parties. For some, this will be a pleasing alteration. From many MPs, who see their power as being potentially challenged, there is considerable scepticism. The Conservatives will lose their unofficial, but well known, majority in the House of Lords with the phasing-out of hereditary peers. The government, the Wakeham Report suggests, should have the most peers, although not a majority. If peers are being appointed, and parties have a say in who is appointed, that could lead to New Labour (for it will be people who subscribe to Blair’s doctrine who are appointed by his party) dominating both Commons and Lords.

Tony Benn has been a prominent fifth column in the Labour Party since the 1970s. His uncompromising left-wing views have always marked him out as a true ideologue, and it was refreshing to hear a Labour MP say something against the party line, in a government where politicians are kept supposedly “on-message”. Benn began his interview with GMTV’s Alistair Stewart by emphasising how the Wakeham reforms could actually tighten the grip of the Labour government on the Lords. He likened Tony Blair to ‘a medieval monarch’, wanting to control everything and appoint everyone. Whilst there is a certain amount of bias in what he says, as he is an “Old” Labour rebel, there is also some truth in saying that the government, and hence Tony Blair, will wield a greater influence in the Lords after the reforms have taken place. This will be especially so because of Labour having more Lords than any other party.

Will the elected element to the Lords and all its added legitimacy mean a challenge to the Commons’ overall dominance of Parliament? This would be disastrous for British politics. Tony Benn thinks that an elected Lords, ‘will, in the end, not work, because people will not accept it’. He went on to say that it ‘might not be popular at Number Ten,’ as the House would not be ‘there as a puppet [in the constitution]’.

He is more worried about the appointed element of the Second Chamber. ‘Give anyone the power to appoint lawmakers, and democracy in Britain is under threat’. Here, it is possible to sympathise with the much-maligned Wakeham Commission. Had they suggested a totally elected House of Lords, it certainly would have undermined the House of Commons. Had they suggested keeping the status quo, Labour would have failed even to try fulfilling its manifesto promise. Peers by appointment are a middle course, a compromise. How much control, though, will be afforded to the party hierarchy when it comes to appointing peers? For the sake of democracy, the hope has to be that input in appointments is wide-ranging, and not concentrated in a few hands.

Lord Tebbit, the former Conservative Party Chairman, holds a similar view of the changes. ‘It used to be one man, one vote,’ he said. ‘It still is. We know the man, we know where he lives, and we know where he casts his one vote.’ Tebbit’s motion for a postponement to the abolition of hereditaries was voted down in the House of Lords in October.

There was room for comic relief, or perhaps thoughts of what might have been during that turbulent week, as the Earl of Burford performed his feat of athleticism. The Earl was allowed to sit and listen to Lords debates, but not take part, as the son of a hereditary peer. Making himself look instantly like a conspiracy theorist (decide for yourself whether he speaks the truth or not), he launched into a rant lasting roughly one minute, perched on top of the historic woolsack he had mounted.

‘This Bill, drafted in Brussels, is treason. What we are witnessing is the abolition of Britain. Before us lies a wasteland. No Queen, no culture, no Sovereign, no freedom. Stand up for your country and vote down this Bill.’

After regaining his composure, Black Rod finally ejected Burford, who suggested in other comments that Tony Blair was conspiring with the European Union in making the reforms. Some found the wild interlude idiotic, others refreshing.

The old Lords was an outdated over-representation of the fortunate few, who undoubtedly worked to their own interest as well as that of the UK as a whole (something which nearly makes me support the reforms). It still played a valuable role in British politics. The hapless Prince Hohenlohe, German imperial Chancellor in the 1890s, is a man often painted as an incompetent buffoon who should not have been running a major nation. The hereditary peers have had to endure similar derision, at the hands of Blairites such as Baroness Jay. She has mocked them, tarring them with the same brush as a lazy, apathetic minority within their number.

However, just like Hohenlohe, who was a brake on some of the unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II’s more ludicrous policy suggestions, the old, conservative (with a small or a large “c”) House of Lords offered a chance of keeping New Labour in check. The public could actually stand back and review new legislation, deciding what they thought rather than having it rushed through Parliament. The in-built majority that the Conservative Party enjoyed with hereditary peers meant controversial bills could not be rushed through the legislative system like items on a conveyor belt. The safety net has gone now. Whatever you thought of the hereditary peers and their power, and I would like as much as anyone to see reform in the way Britain is run, the disappearance of that net is a little scary. For the record, and you can draw parallels if you see them, Chancellor Hohenlohe was quietly “retired” in 1900.