Packed to the Rafters

The Salisbury Doctrine is a little known constitutional convention that states that House of Lords cannot vote down government measures that were part of the manifesto it won the most recent general election on. It emerged after the Second World War when the Labour government had a massive majority in the Commons but, as a relatively new party, very few representatives in the Lords. An agreement between Lords and Commons was needed so that a democratically elected government with a huge mandate could not be blocked by a few curmudgeonly Tory landowners.

The Coalition, however, doesn’t have the same protection as so many of the measures it is trying to get through were not mentioned in the Tory or Lib Dem manifestoes, either because of the need to come up with compromise measures or because they were too cowardly to stand or fall by their policies during the election campaign, as is the case with its plans to reorganize the NHS. The only solution left for Cameron and Clegg, therefore, is to pack the upper chamber with assorted party hacks, cronies and millionaire businessmen donors to head off any challenge to its programmes, which is exactly what they did this week. On Thursday, the appointment of 52 new peers (in addition to the 30 it appointed immediately after the election) was announced to (mostly justified) cries from Labour that the Coalition was trying to rig the constitution in its favour.

Apart from a few who genuinely do have experience valuable and relevant to voting on national affairs (Tory Gordon Wasserman, an international expert on public administration and Lib Dem Claire Tyler, who has had a long career in managing children’s services), they are almost all party workers, former MPs and donors who can be relied on to toe the party line.

The Coalition’s claim that all these extra Lords merely ensures that the upper chamber “reflects the result of the last election” is wrong on several grounds. For a start, it is a complete distortion of the election result. Labour represents 41% of the main three party MPs elected in May, but only 18% (10) of the new group of peers whilst the Lib Dems represent only 9% of the MPs but more than a quarter – 27% of the new appointees.

Secondly, it completely misunderstands (deliberately) the role and function of the House of Lords. It is supposed to be primarily a non-party political chamber filled with experts who revise and refine legislation referred to it by the Commons; it is not supposed to reflect the election result and packing it with party hacks to make it mirror the Commons defeats the whole point of having it in the first place.

Appointing another 80 peers also defeats the purpose of reducing the House of Commons, another of the Coalition’s acts of politically opportunisitc constitutional vandalism. The money that is saved by cutting out 50 MPs is dwarfed for a start by the cost involved in redrawing the new constituency boundaries and then again by the cost of paying a £300 per day attendance allowance to the new peers, along with office costs, subsidized meals and various other perks. All this has been without any reforms to make sure that the new Lords and Baronesses are qualified to do their jobs (What makes Julian Fellowes qualified other than that he has just written a halfway decent ITV Sunday night drama? Is election to Luton borough council enough to qualify Qurban Hussain to vote on national affairs?) or that they actually turn up once they have been appointed.

Our noble Lords may be mocked for appearing to be alseep most of the time, but the Lords does – just about – serve a purpose. Free from the need to constantly score political points, debate there is often more informed and insightful than in the Commons, and the Lords provide a valuable check on the excesses of government; note the furore they managed to create around Labour’s draconian ‘anti-terrorism’ measures right through its time in government. Packing it with unaccountable party cronies is a blatant attempt to achieve a short term advantage, and one which risks doing damage to a system which has proved itself over hundreds of years of Britsh history.

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