Two Cheers for the House of Lords

If you’ve bumped into a Labour member of the House of Lords recently, they have a somewhat haggard look. The reason is not end-of-term revelry but successive late nights holding the Government to account over its Illegal Migration Bill.

Since June, when the House of Lords stayed up until 4.16am debating the multiple failings of the Tories’ Bill, Opposition peers have defeated the Government over twenty times. Night after night, a combination of Labour peers, the Archbishops, the Lib Dems, Crossbenchers, Tory rebels, and pretty much anyone with a shred of decency, has sought to blunt the cruelty of Sunak’s populist ‘stop the boats’ Bill.

We’ve seen ping pong, etc, as the amended Bill ricochets between the Commons and the Lords as recess looms ever-nearer and the rhetoric ramps up. Greg Hands claimed that opponents of the Bill ‘have shown they are on the side of vile people smugglers and human traffickers, not the British people’ which probably came as a surprise to Justin Welby.

The Bill is a bad Bill, and will make rotten law when it inevitably passes. It will do nothing to stop the boats, nor to safeguard the thousands of traumatised, exploited and bewildered folk landing on the English south coast. The way to stop the boats is to work with the French to smash the gangs, a practical policy of which Tory Ministers are ideologically incapable.

But back to the Lords. Gordon Brown’s recent commission restated the goal of a fully-elected House of Lords. The UK constitution is the product of evolutionary reform, sometimes glacial and sclerotic, and seldom logical. When it comes to creating a shiny, modern constitution, like the old joke says, you wouldn’t start from here.

Parts of it are hard to defend – the 92 hereditary peers, for example, topped up by by-elections. Most recently John Russell, the former Lib Dem Lewisham councillor, joined the Lords, not because of his sterling work on the scrutiny committee, but because his antecedent was given a peerage by Queen Victoria. A simple rule change to prevent further by-elections to the hereditary section of the House of Lords would allow this constitutional anomaly to slide gracefully from view.

But parts of it are rather marvellous. I defy any system of government around the world to match the intellectual heft, life experience, and political savvy of the Labour Lords: professors, doctors, ministers, broadcasters, entrepreneurs, campaigners, politicians, trade union leaders, and a fair smattering of former Labour General Secretaries.

When Alf Dubs stands to oppose the Illegal Migration Bill, he does it not with an eye to opinion polls or newspaper editorials, but because of his lived experience of being a child refugee and his desire to make decent laws.

This degree of experience and knowledge might be lost with a fully-elected second chamber. Even without considering the vast quantum of political capital that Keir Starmer would have to expend to bring in an elected House of Lords, there are sound arguments to retain a strong appointed element. This allows real expertise in the second chamber from people who would be unlikely to stand for Labour selection and win an election. We would lose future Melvyn Braggs, Joan Bakewells, and Doreen Lawrences in a wholly-elected Lords, and our constitution would be poorer for it.

In the meantime, the indefatigable Labour Lords are proving their worth, winning arguments and even winning votes, and making the likes of Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman look like the small-minded and morally-bankrupt Lilliputians they are.


If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, why not read the previous instalment: The Big Lie: the conspiracies that infect the left