Monday 17 May 2010

St Augustine's New Politics: does the peer creation scheme add up?

"Oh Lord, help me to be pure but not yet"

The Coalition is very much for the New politics of St Augustine.

We've had the controversial 55% rule for "fixed term Parliaments, unless the governing Coalition wants a dissolution" publicly defended in terms of short-term expediency.

So surely proposing an elected second chamber should mean that the Coalition can pack the existing Lords in the meantime, with a plan to create 172 new Peers so that the government has a majority.

Well, David Cameron deserves our sympathy.

He is the first Tory Prime Minister in well over a century not to enjoy a Lords majority, since most of the hereditary backwoodsmen born into our legislature lost their seats.

Every non-Tory Prime Minister in our history has had to cope without one, but that is mere detail.

As is the assumption that no government would have a Lords majority prior to a larger overhaul of the It is fundamentally the switch to "no overall control" that has made the post-1999 Lords a much stronger chamber, enabling it to defeat Labour governments over 350 times, as Meg Russell's in-depth research for the Constitution Unit has shown.

But the Coalition has a majority of the vote - and therefore seeks to claim the power to legislate without negotiation.

"Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”

Look at the current composition of the House and the case for some new Peers for the governing parties is clear, but the principle set in the Coalition agreement goes much further.

Here is the official breakdown of current composition:

Conservative: 186
Labour: 211
LibDem: 72
Other parties: 11
Crossbench: 186
Others: 15
Bishops: 26
total: 707

There will be some complexities in the detail, around working peers. But, at the outset, the governing coalition has 37% of all Peers, compared to 30% for the outgoing Labour government.

The Press Association reports the Coalition plans "imply an increase from 186 to 263 in Tory numbers in the House of Lords and a boost in Lib Dem places from 72 to 167 - a total of 172 new peers".

But the Coalition already has 54% of those Peers with a party affiliation.

Increasing this to somewhere in excess of 60% of party-affilated Peers could well be thought to be fair and proper.

If the Coalition thinks it should have 59% of the whole House, this raises the question: why?

(Like me, you may have missed Margaret Thatcher's plans in the 1980s to reduce the number of Tory peers to reflect the fact she had only a plurality of the vote: the Tory conversion to proportional representation in this respect only has had to await their having a majority of the vote Coalition).

The governing parties shared 59.1% of the vote at the General Election: intriguingly, the Telegraph generously rounds that up to their "65% share of the vote", while also claiming that the 700-strong chamber is "dominated by Labour's 211 Peers". That suggests some briefers might be trying some sleight-of-hand - such as the share of the three-party vote, or those parties represented in the Commons. And I rather doubt that the Coalition is going to appoint Lord Nick Griffin as one of the first BNP peers, complicating their objetive somewhat.

Perhaps the new Cameron-Clegg Peers could be called the Lloyd George Centenary Class of 2011, as they enter the House to mark the centenary of the Parliament Act, necessary because the Tories used their majority for entirely partisan purposes when they lost an election.

1 comment:

Ian & Nina Graham said...

I think your point that
"He is the first Tory Prime Minister in well over a century not to enjoy a Lords majority .............Every non-Tory Prime Minister in our history has had to cope without one,"is well made. Your later clarification that "the Coalition has a majority of the vote " doesn't contradict it, bit points it up.

This is all of a piece with the fixed term / 55% proposals. It is the politics of the nursery, or of the princess and the pea - take your pick. No inconvenience should be allowed to befall the Loving Boys. These are striking demonstrations that those who point out the bias to the 'privileged' in the make-up of the government are not merely sniping - the 'I'm privileged' expectation is working its way through into proposed Government actions.