Shami Chakrabarti should be an excellent addition to the Lords. She is a hugely respected civil liberties campaigner, a barrister and a remarkable public speaker. She has been instrumental in combating the authoritarian tendencies of several governments. She no doubt would continue to do so as a peer.
But her ascendancy to the gilded chambers is now tarnished. Chakrabarti was nominated by Labour soon after she chaired an inquiry into anti-Semitism in the party. Her report was not uncritical of Labour – indeed she made a detailed series of recommendations to improve the culture in the party. But she did conclude that Labour was not “overrun” with anti-Semitism, a line seized on by the leadership.
The fact she has been nominated so soon after this event has been criticised by none other than Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party. He told BBC Radio 4: “Shami Chakrabarti is precisely the kind of person you would want in the House of Lords. She’s a very highly-regarded human rights lawyer and we need her there.”
But he said he had not been consulted on the nomination, and added: “The timing is not great for the Labour party.
“I do think it’s a mistake because I don’t agree with resignation honours. I think Labour should be very clear that this is a discretionary power that should be removed from outgoing prime ministers.”
Watson’s comments have proved to be more ammunition for Corbyn’s critics. But he makes a valid point about peerages – and indeed the House of Lords itself.
Under resignation honours rules, an outgoing prime minister can nominate any number of people to receive peerages or other honours. The opposition can nominate people too.
This is a reminder of Lords’ disconnect with real life. It’s hard to imagine another place of employment where the boss who has been forced to resign gets to line up a series of cronies to keep his or her legacy alive. In fact, it’s so jarring that Tony Blair felt obliged to avoid it, and Gordon Brown did it as quietly as he could.
Nevertheless, so long as the Lords continues to play an active role in legislation, parties cannot ignore the opportunity to stuff the house full with their nearest and dearest. In less than a year of becoming PM, David Cameron created 117 new peers – prompting a group of existing Lords to write a pamphlet entitled “House Full”.
Reforming the House of Lords is a slow and often frustrating process – just ask Nick Clegg. But the halfway house reform New Labour achieved isn’t enough. Yes, it got rid of dribbling hereditary earls, but they have too often been replaced by party loyalists instead. However much we cheered the Torie’ defeat on tax credits, the then-Chancellor George Osborne’s complaint that his defeat was down to “unelected Labour and Lib Dem lords” has a ring of truth to it.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could say tax credits were blocked by fine and upstanding citizens, men and women who were chosen primarily for their contribution to society? Chakrabarti could still be among them, as could the anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence, and many more campaigners, entrepreneurs and public servants. But it would be clear beyond doubt they had been nominated for these achievements – and not their political loyalties.
There is already a body to recommend individuals for appoinment as non-party-political life peers – the House of Lords Appointments Commission. There are also many ideas that have fallen by the wayside, such as elections for a single, long, term as a peer. Many would-be reformers have recognised the need for a check on the Commons that is not distracted by elections every five years.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and his rival Owen Smith have backed a reformed House of Lords. Focusing on an individual nomination divides the party. Coming up with a coherent strategy for a more respected legislative body could unite it.