The Tories' power grab in the Lords

The only reason the government has to increase its share of peers is to make it easier to ram legisl

Government legislation has run into trouble in the Lords. The Lords rejected proposals to cut support for young disabled people and those living with cancer. They voted to reject proposals to charge single mothers for using the Child Support Agency. And the government's disastrous Health and Society Care Bill was defeated.

The response from the government has been to draw up plans to stuff the House of Lords with new peers to enable them to ram legislation through the Lords much the way they do in the Commons. They have no case to do so.

Margaret Thatcher didn't have to worry about getting her legislation through Parliament. Massive majorities in the Commons were buttressed by comfortable majorities in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is composed of peers taking a party whip (about 70 per cent of the total) and cross benchers (those taking no party whip who vote less often).

The presence of hereditary peers in the Thatcher/Major years meant two thirds of the peers taking a party whip were Conservative. Overall 43-45 per cent of the peers in the Lords were Conservatives between 1979 and 1997. Given many cross benchers don't vote it was little surprise that of the 2859 divisions in the House of Lords between 1979 and 1997 the Conservatives lost just 8.4 per cent. By contrast, between 1997 and 2010 - the 13 years of Labour government - the Lords defeated the government on 528 of 1704 occasions 31 per cenmt of the time. Why the difference?

Because during 13 years of Labour government the number of Labour peers in the House of Lords (once the hereditaries left) increased from 29.1 per cent to 30.8 per cent. In 13 years of a Labour government the party which saw the biggest increase in its share of peers was in fact the Liberal Democrats whose numbers increased by almost 50 per cent Today the government combined share of peers in the House of Lords is 39 per cent - a third more than Labour had at any point during its 13 years in power.

The only reason the government has to increase its share of peers is to make it easier to ram legislation through. We should not be surprised at this shameless power grab from a government that plans to use changes to Parliamentary constituency boundaries and to the way households register to vote to strengthen its grip on power.

In the House of Commons, I challenged the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, to rule out rigging the composition of the Lords to further favour the government he failed to do so. David Cameron's big idea - the Big Society - turned out to be a flop. It would appeared that the Tories' big idea, after 13 years in opposition, is to grab as much power as possible and hold on to it. It is a dangerous and depressing development for the health of our democracy.

Angela Eagle is the shadow leader of the House of Commons.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser