Do the bishops in the House of Lords actually change anything?

When 0.8 of a bishop turns up to each vote (on average), it's hard to argue they have a substantial effect.

In the wake of the Church of England's vote to continue banning women from being bishops, there have been renewed calls to remove bishops from the House of Lords. This e-petition, for instance, argues that:

The Church of England on 20th Nov 2012 voted not to allow women to be Bishops. Though that is within its rights to do, this should worry the Government as Church of England Bishops are awarded legislative power through seats in the House of Lords.

The Church has chosen to be a sexist organisation by refusing women the right to hold highest leadership positions and therefore should not be allowed automatic seats in the House of Lords, as this clearly does not comply with the spirit of UK Equality law.

But does it actually matter that bishops are in the House of Lords? Clearly, I'm not talking about points of principle; having a religious organisation in the House of Lords is as symbolically wrong as having a hereditary monarch as the head of state. It represents a Britain which hasn't existed for a very long time, and actively denigrates many people's conception of their own nationality.

But do the bishops in the Lords actually affect anything? A 2007 paper from UCL's Meg Russell and Maria Sciara, titled "Why Does the Government get Defeated in the House of Lords?: The Lords, the Party System and British Politics" suggests not.

There are 26 bishops seats in the house of lords (although that number varies occasionally due to deaths and retirements, and currently only 25 are present). That is out of 760 seats overall, and compares to the 212 Conservative, 225 Labour, and 90 Liberal Democrat peers. In other words, if turnout were 100 per cent, and party lines held all the time, the bishops would never matter – the vote would go to the coalition every time.

The first snag are the crossbenchers – 176 peers who aren't affiliated with any parties. But even they don't affect the outcome all that often. Of all 806 whipped votes in the Lords between 1999 and 2005, the crossbenchers changed the outcome just 50 times. That is, if they had not voted, 37 defeats would have been turned to victory, ten defeats would have been turned to a draw, two victories would have been turned to a draw, and one draw would have been turned to a victory.

The second snag, and the one the parties battle with most frequently, is turnout. In the same period, the mean turnout for Labour and Liberal Democrat peers was just over 50 per cent, and while it was just 34 per cent for the Tories. For the parties, boosting turnout is by far the most important way to win votes. Once the whipped lords actually turned up, they tended to vote with their party, with 97 to 99 per cent cohesiveness.

In this sleepy chamber, where do the bishops fit in? The authors write:

The Bishops’ impact… is limited by the fact that they are a small group, and that like the Crossbenchers they vote relatively little, and do not vote as a cohesive block.

Most of the time, there is only one bishop at each vote (they actually have a formal rota, apparently), and their mean turnout is just 3.2 per cent. As in, four-fifths of a person. Only ten times in six years were there votes with more than five bishops attending (only 66 times with more than one):

The largest turnouts were 11 votes on the balloting of grammar schools in 2000 (when nine Bishops supported the government and two opposed), on the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004 (eight supporting, two opposed), and on the Learning and Skills Bill in 2000 with respect to sex education guidelines to replace Section 28.19.

So there aren't many bishops in the lords, and they rarely turn up. Which is why it's not a surprise that, over 806 divisions and six years, only three times did the bishops make a difference. Twice, the government was defeated by one vote when the sole bishop voted against it, and once the government was defeated by one vote when three bishops voted against it:

This was over the issue of education of asylum seekers’ children, where an amendment moved by the Bishop of Portsmouth required that such children are taught in a school and not separately in a detention centre. Three Bishops attended and voted against the government, and it lost the division by one vote.

When it comes to the simple legislative arithmetic, it is largely irrelevant whether we have bishops in the lords. A dodgy batch of mussels in the House of Lords' restaurant would probably have a greater material effect on the outcome of divisions that the lords spiritual do.

There are, of course, benefits for the bishops which are harder to quantify. Being peers gives them the ability to lobby others more effectively; and there were almost certainly times when the threat of defeat caused the government to change its legislative program pre-emptively.

Nonetheless, those fighting to remove Bishops from the Lords are doing the right thing by focusing on matters of principle, such as equality and secularity. When it comes to substance, there really isn't a whole lot to object to.

Bishops, and an archbishop. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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As Donald Trump once asked, how do you impeach a President?

Starting the process is much easier than you might think. 

Yes, on Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. And no, you can’t skip the next four years.

But look on the bright side. Those four years might never happen. On the one hand, he could tweet the nuclear codes before the day is out. On the other, his party might reach for their own nuclear button – impeachment. 

So, how exactly can you impeach a President? Here is our rough guide.

OK, what does impeachment actually mean?

Impeachment is the power to remove an elected official for misconduct. Here’s the relevant clause of the US Constitution:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Impeachment is actually a legacy of British constitutional history, and dates back as far as 1376, but according to our own parliamentary website, in the UK “this procedure is considered obsolete”. 

It’s up to the US Congress to decide whether to impeach and convict a President. Both houses are controlled by the Republicans, so impeaching Trump would mean turning against one who is – technically at least – one of their own. Since he’s already insulted the neighbouring country, supported discrimination against Muslim immigrants and mocked a disabled reporter, their impeachment threshold seems pretty high. But let’s imagine he surpasses himself. What next?

The impeachment process

Members of the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of the Congress – can start the impeachment process. They in turn may be encouraged to do so by voters. For example, there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to people who tried to impeach Barack Obama. One Impeach Obama supporter simply gave his reason as stopping the President from “pushing his agenda”. Another wanted to do so on the grounds of gross incompetence...

But for an impeachment attempt to actually work, the impeacher needs to get the support of the house. If a majority agree with the idea of impeaching the elected official, they nominate members to act as prosecutors during the subsequent trial. This takes place in the Senate, the upper house of Congress. In most impeachments, the Senate acts as judge and jury, but when a President is impeached, the chief justice of the United States presides.     

Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for impeachment in order to convict. 

What are the chances of impeaching Donald Trump?

So if Trump does something that even he can’t tweet away, and enough angry voters email their representatives, Congress can begin the process of impeachment. But will that be enough to get him out?

It’s often assumed that Richard Nixon was kicked out because he was impeached for the cover up known as the Watergate Scandal. In fact, we’ll never know, because he resigned before the House could vote on the process.

Two decades later, the House got further with Bill Clinton. When it emerged Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern, he initially denied it. But after nearly 14 hours of debate, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decided to impeach him on grounds including perjury and obstruction of justice.

In the Senate trial, Clinton’s defenders argued that his actions did not threaten the liberty of the people. The majority of Senators voted to acquit him. 

The only other Presidential impeachment took place in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson, removed a rabble-rouser from his Cabinet. The guilty vote fell short of the two-thirds majority, and he was acquitted.

So, what’s the chances of impeaching Trump? I’ll leave you with some numbers…

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.