They’ve done it again. Those radical freedom fighters dressed all in mink have put us poor lefties in yet another dilemma. This week, the Lords voted down the government’s Article 50 bill, urging ministers to guarantee EU nationals’ right to stay in the UK after Brexit.
It’s another of those moments, which have felt increasingly common lately, when anyone with a mildly progressive outlook can’t help but sigh: “Thank God for the Upper Chamber.”
It was our reaction during the Housing Bill last year, when the House of Lords watered down a Tory policy prioritising earners who can buy “affordable” homes over those in need of social housing. And to the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act that same year, which urged Britain to take in refugee children (which it has, but far fewer than hoped).
It also happened when the peers delayed the government on its proposal to cut tax credits in 2015, which led to former Chancellor George Osborne dropping the policy. (This even led to the Strathclyde Review into curbing the House of Lords’ powers, so infuriated were the Tories.)
So if you’re a person who thinks it’s generally wrong to financially devastate working households for ideological purposes or condemn migrants to a precarious future as a political bargaining chip – but also feel kind of squeamish about unelected random old rich dudes, some who are simply there because they happened to be born, running the country – how are you supposed to feel about those pesky Lords?
Coinciding with the latest round of peer-fuelled mischief-making is the BBC documentary Meet the Lords, which, as our TV critic Rachel Cooke writes, makes for “enraging” viewing. One elderly member laughing at the irony that the only elected peers are hereditary; another beaming that it’s “like being back at school!” as he uses the same clothes peg his grandfather did; lunch mates chuckling in the dining room about eating “milk pudding” and who you could end up sitting next to.
We are told by one interviewee that the House of Lords is not just at the heart of Parliament, but key to the country’s identity (cue camera panning over ancient white men in a decadent Gothic palace – the UK in a nutshell).
That such characters influence modern Britain is tough to swallow.
But can we overlook this when the Lords do something good? When their lack of a need to play politics – or capitulate to the electorate and the press – means they end up doing something compassionate?
The Upper Chamber’s tough stance against the government appears to have given it a reprieve from the left in recent years. It’s notable that The Mirror quietly stopped plugging its 2015 campaign to scrap the House of Lords after the tax credits vote. Today the paper describes it as “an outdated, anarchic, unrepresentative institution we’d be lost without”.
I’d argue that we can treat the Lords as a necessary evil for the moment. There’s not much momentum to scrap it these days anyway. House of Lords reform, which takes up so much parliamentary time, is going to be off the table for at least as long as Brexit and its fallout takes. So there’s not much of a fight to be had on that front.
Also, the desire among Tories to ennoble more of their own in order to beef up their influence in the Upper Chamber are generally idle threats coming from backbenchers rather than ministers. The government would have pursued the Strathclyde proposals – rather than letting them fall by the wayside – if it had really wanted to hobble the Lords ahead of Brexit. So we don’t need to worry too much about the Tories using the Lords for influence.
It’s important to remember that the Lords rarely push back repeatedly against the government. Defeating bills is its way of making the Commons think again, rather than outright refusing to accept law proposed by democratically elected representatives.
The Institute for Government’s Director of Research and parliamentary expert Dr Hannah White expects the Lords only to go in for “one round of ping-pong” on Brexit bill amendments, being aware of the limits of its legitimacy. Sending the bill back to the Commons is the Lords’ way of asking “are you sure you meant this?” about parts of legislation that clearly caused the most disquiet in the Commons.
Being reluctantly pro-Lords is a more palatable stance for left-wingers currently because the Tories don’t have a majority in the Lords – there are 252 Tory members to Labour’s 202, the Lib Dems’ 102, and 177 crossbenchers. So far in the 2016-17 parliamentary session, the Lords have defeated the government 21 times. In 2015-16, there were 60 defeats. Throughout the five years of coalition, there were only 100, so they do seem to be getting fightier.
Plus, with Labour being prepared to nod Conservative policies through – and too weak to stop the government when it’s not – we need someone to oppose the government. Even if that someone is called Baroness Young of Old Scone as if it’s completely normal.