Adil Sait discusses history, policy and the changing direction of Westminster
The recent defeat of the welfare reform bill in the Lords has reignited the debate over the sovereign power of the Commons. This will no doubt have ramifications for the way in which the UK is governed, as David Cameron and Osborne may now look to how to deal with “the other place”.
Historically, the Lords have always been seen as out of step with the Commons. In this case, peers have now earned the wrath of the Conservative-majority government in opposing changes to tax credits. Yet, more than a hundred years ago this same opposition was faced by progressive taxation legislation proposed by the then-chancellor, David Lloyd George, in his so-called “People’s Budget” of 1909. The ensuing constitutional crisis, that ended two years and two general elections later, led to the Parliament Act of 1911, which set the precedent for the tradition that the Lords would not tamper with financial regulation – a fact that Tory MPs pointed out in the row over tax credits.
Since then, the existential crisis that the Lords have faced throughout the twentieth century has never really gone away. It has predominately been the Labour left that has led the charge against the Lords, proposing a two-tier system of peerages, which fell by the wayside in the 1950s. The turning point was in 1999, when Tony Blair’s government managed to get rid of the majority of the hereditary peers in the Lords, giving Labour a majority, something that had never happened before, and arguably was supposed to end the idea of the Lords as a largely antiquated chamber.
A sudden shift
However, the election of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2010 revealed the imbalance in the structure of the Lords, which opposed the agenda of austerity in the Commons. While the Liberal Democrats had bolstered the Conservatives in the Lords to pass key austerity measures during the coalition, they now are fiercely opposed to Conservative legislation. Thus, the election of 2015 has meant that, while the Commons now has a new Conservative government, the Lords are back out of step.
Certainly it would have been unthinkable prior to 1999 for a Conservative Prime Minister to talk about the Lords in the way that Cameron has, calling the Lords opposition “an alliance between the unelected and unelectable” in Prime Minister’s Questions.
The strong rhetoric poses the difficult question of what the role of the Lords truly is. Commentators had recently seen the rebranding of the Lords as responsible for scrutinising the Commons as accepted, but how far can is this power acceptable?
In the eyes of Labour and Lib Dem peers it is primarily a role to force the government to “think again” when it comes to legislation, but Conservative MPs looking back to 1911, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, disagree. At PMQs on 21st October he pointed out the sanctity of Commons finance legislation in the Lords. The Prime Minster duly agreed. Yet despite this, the Lords continue to oppose austerity cuts that are seen to be increasingly hitting the poorest in society.
A crisis on the make?
At this rate another constitutional crisis is emerging, and Cameron and Osborne will once again have to look hard at what is to be done with the House of Lords and its relevance in the 21st century. All the more embarrassing is the fact that key government figures in 2011 had dismissed Lib Dem proposals to reform the Lords to an 80% elected chamber – a refusal which may come back to haunt them.
The question of what to do with the House of Lords has been asked by every major administration since the late nineteenth century. The cost of an answer will no doubt be a constitutional bloodbath and a large amount of political capital that will be spent on elections, public opinion and debates in the Commons. As 1911 reminds us: the Lords will not go willingly, and any changes may cost the government their majority, as the Liberals under Herbert Asquith saw, having to rely on the Irish Nationalists and the fledgling Labour Party to stay in power. The first step to seeking the answers for Cameron and Osborne must now be to decide why the Lords exist in the first place.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart