Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, the House of Lords don’t get no respect. Many observers dismiss it as politically irrelevant, and the media often ignores it. But while it’s undeniable that the House of Commons is the dominant chamber, it would be wrong to write off the Lords as a moribund anachronism. Those who actually study the upper house see a rather different picture. They see a chamber that is increasingly willing to flex its muscle and stand up to the government. In The House of Lords and Contemporary Politics, veteran Lords-watcher Dr. Meg Russell of UCL’s Constitution Unit provides a valuable analysis of how the chamber works in today’s Parliament.
The first part of the book provides a historical and theoretical framework for Dr. Russell’s approach. Her look at the powers of other second chambers is particularly illuminating because it emphasizes the fact that, despite the formal and informal limits on the Lords’ power, it is still one of the more powerful second chambers around. The fact that it can delay legislation for a year or more makes it stand out–in many other countries, the upper house’s veto can either be overridden right away (e.g. France and the Czech Republic) or after a brief period of delay (e.g. Poland, Japan, and Ireland) (Russell 2013, 55). A year is a long time in politics, and governments will often try to seek a compromise rather than use the Parliament Acts.
The real meat of Dr. Russell’s book is her detailed analysis of the Lords since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers in 1999. Prior to that, Conservative peers dominated the House, and they dominated it to such an extent that Tory whips used to encourage backbenchers to stay out of the division lobbies in order to avoid swamping the other parties (Russell 2013, 111)! But with the hereditaries gone, a consensus has emerged that no single party should be able to control the chamber. Although the government of the day is entitled to be the largest party in the Lords, the presence of a sizable element of non-aligned peers (the ‘Crossbenchers’) allows them to be outvoted. Indeed, the advent of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has turned the Crossbenchers into powerbrokers of sorts. To illustrate the point, Dr. Russell shows that, when Labour was in office, 87% of government defeats were caused by amendments proposed by the Opposition. However, during the first years of the Coalition government, that number plunged to 23%, and amendments proposed by Crossbenchers made up roughly half the total number of defeats (Russell 2013, 120).
Dr. Russell also makes it clear that government defeats in the House of Lords are far from symbolic exercises. In an attempt to assess the impact of government defeats, she weighted the policy importance of each defeat using a five-point scale of significance (for the details of her methodology, see Russell 2013, 145-146). Dr. Russell found that over half the divisions (55%) ranked at the upper end of the scale, with 20% of the total being classified as ‘major alterations to a major policy’ (Russell 2013, 146). She used a similar approach to examine the impact of those defeats. Although the government can theoretically overturn defeats in the Commons, she found that, in many cases, the Lords either prevailed or reached a compromise with the Commons (Russell 2013, 147).
But defeats alone don’t tell the whole story. In many cases, ministers in the House of Lords will table amendments that address issues raised by other peers. According to her analysis of 12 government bills passed during the 2005 and 2010 Parliaments, 55% of the amendments could be classified in this manner (Russell 2013, 173). In other words, ministers do listen to what the Lords has to say.
Dr. Russell also provides a useful chapter on the question of the House of Lords’ legitimacy. All too often, attempts to answer that question focus on the issue of the Lords’ composition, but she takes a different approach. She looks at how various groups (from parliamentarians to the general public) perceive the Lords, and their answers reveal a complex (and often contradictory) picture. For example, although a 2010 poll suggested that the public supports the introduction of a sizable elected element into the Lords, they didn’t like the idea of a more partisan upper house (Russell 2013, 244). And in a 2006 poll, 72% of respondents thought that the House should be at least half-elected, while 75% of the same respondents agreed with that the House should remain primarily appointed (Russell 2013, 244)! At the same time, polls have also shown that people broadly support the Lords’ right to intervene in the legislative process (Russell 2013, 245-246). Dr. Russell’s approach suggests that the question of the Lords’ legitimacy can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, nor will it ever be answered definitively.
The book concludes with speculation about the future of the House of Lords. Dr. Russell is probably correct to assume that dramatic changes are out of the question. Although the Tories and Labour will likely continue to pay lip service to the idea of an elected chamber, dissent within the ranks will make that hard to achieve. Instead, there will likely be smaller reforms along the lines of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. In the meantime, the biggest problem is the Prime Minister’s unconstrained power of patronage. The Lords now has over 800 members (though 55 of them are currently on leave of absence), and if appointments continue at the present rate, it won’t be long before the chamber breaks the 1000-member mark. Dr. Russell suggests a number of options for incremental reform, and most of her recommendations have considerable merit. The idea of imposing term-limited appointments seems particularly attractive since it would lead to a regular pattern of new appointments, and it would help ensure that the House is constantly rejuvenated with fresh talent.
All in all, Dr. Russell has produced a powerful and thought-provoking work. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the British constitution or British politics.
The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived by Meg Russell (Oxford University Press, 300 pp, $92.50)