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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder