Opinion: Silly me! How I was nearly suckered by the promise of Lords Reform

Last Saturday, just after we started to negotiate with the Tories, I asked on these pages:

Is their a grand gesture to Reform which will make a deal with the Tories acceptable?

I concluded by saying that, while Mr Cameron would not give way on Fair Votes for the Commons, it was just possible that, if his back was against the wall, he might be induced to yield ground on Reform of the upper House.

His MP’s own seats would thus, for the time being at least, remain ‘safe’ enough for them to be dragged into line to accept proportionality in the Lords, and we would all be free of the hard Tory right for forever. Including, some would say, freedom for Mr Cameron himself.

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, as snippets of the coalition deal began to leak out from people who were at the midnight meeting of the Parliamentary Party and Federal Executive, my hopes were raised. STV for the Lords? Could it be true? Excitedly, I began to tell friends what the implications of this would be, if it were true. The Tories would be neutered forever! Hurrah! (As Paddy Ashdown might say!)

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, the agreement was published.

There it was in black and white pixels on the Party’s official website:

“We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motions by December 2010.” (sic)

OK, so it said ‘or mainly’, so it might not be fully elected.

But even so, what progress! The Tories would never again have the majority in both Houses of Parliament! Hurrah, again!

Last night I came back down to Earth. I examined the rest of the paragraph. Carefully. I am going to Birmingham on Sunday, and I take my duties as a Conference rep seriously. (Until the Glee Club, at least.)

So what does it say, what does it say? (Too much Cbeebies, sorry!)

“It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office.”

OK. Not too bad. I’d have preferred more oversight for ‘We, the People’, but there are advantages to long terms of office. Look how many US Supreme Court Justices have ‘gone native’ after partisan Presidential appointments in their favour. The newly elected Members of this ‘New Chamber’ (I rather like the idea that it should be called that. Will they still be calling it ‘New’ in 500 years’ time, like New College, Oxford?) – these people will be able to vote their
conscience, secure in the knowledge that they’ve got a job for several years.

But then it says:

“It is likely there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers.”

Hang on! What does ‘grandfathering’ mean? Some comments I’ve read suggest that this merely mean that odd little anachronisms likes the Lords Spiritual will remain until we pluck up the courage to admit that hardly anyone is very religious these days.

But the actual meaning of ‘grandfathering’ – I gather it is a financial law term – is ‘keeping the existing rules for things which have already taken place’.

So it means existing peers will be allowed to remain, under existing rules.

Suddenly a ‘wholly or mainly elected’ upper House looks a very long way off!

It could mean that ALL current peers will remain in place until the end of their terms. Which, for life peers – the vast majority – means life. The Lords is one of the few places where ‘life’ really does mean life.

So we have to wait for Baroness Warsi (b 1971) to die before we get a fully elected House? I have a sudden awful premonition of her in 2060, as Grandma Kumar at Number 42, still in the Lords, chuckling ‘Heh, heh, heh – we certainly suckered thos liberals back in Twenty-ten….!’

But it gets even worse than that:

“In the interim, 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.”

Appointments! And political ones at that!

True, the balance will move in our favour, slowly, as these ‘appointments’ are made. But, again, it could take decades. And it will only move in our favour for the course of this Parliament. What of future Parliaments, possibly still elected by FPTP?

In short, there is plenty of wiggle room in this agreement for the Tories to start picking away.

Nick Clegg could end up sitting round the corner from Number 10, like some ludicrous Pooh-Bah, presiding over a Grand Reform Act that will not be completed until so far into the furture that it becomes irrelevant.

In summary, we may have the prospect, on Political Reform, of a referendum we might lose, on a system we don’t like, for the Commons; and a Reform of the upper House which will take literally decades to fully accomplish.

I’m beginning to think I’ve been had.

Someone please tell me I’m wrong! Quickly!

Terry Gilbert is a former Parliamentary candidate and has been a member of the Liberal Democrats (and predecessor parties) since 1983.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Shuttlewood 15th May '10 - 4:00pm

    Grandfathering could mean that the existing lords are offered first dibs for party posts (if it is party list PR, which I hope it isn’t – or first place on the STV lists. In fact, it might be that the first election is not an open-primary, but instead set up with existing peers being elected. If you chopped the number of seats down to 300 (which was suggested), then that would involve a fair number of peers losing their jobs, but in an election.

    Or they could elect half the lords every other time, which would involve grandfathering existing peers in for the first term.

    Or it could be speak/no vote.

    Or it could mean that it becomes more and more elected over time. This is hardly a big thing. I think that once you’ve gone beyond a certain threshold you would find life peers leaving anyway. However even said, some people may believe that some people should still if possible be appointed, at least in the short term. It’s not a disaster. Like AV, it is a step, and an important one.

  • I think Clegg liked to use this phrase a lot: “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”

    What we would have got if we’d let the Tories govern as a minority is nothing. Zip. Absolutely rien, in the way of reform. Even Labour, who claim to be progressive (now), under Blair, who claimed to be more progressive than those who came before him, graced us with absolutely zero political reform.

    Thisd gives us some reform, slowly. How is that worse than nothing? How could we possibly have done better?

  • When hereditary peers were abolished Lords were permitted to vote to retain some of the current peers as colleagues. This is why we still have Baron Avebury, who would be a sad loss. There would probably be a similar system, and that system being in place would make the transition easier to make (especially when you remember this bill would have to be passed in the Lords!). Bodies with long term posts are not elected in their entirety. Thus if we have a system whereby we elect e.g. 1/4 of the Lords every 5 years the question will be asked ‘what do we do the first time, with the additional 3/4’. One option would be to elect the whole thing. That might be the /preferred/ option, however it’s hard to imagine members of the current Lords agreeing to it. Instead we set up a system, as with the hereditary peers, in which members of the Lords (or the parties) get to pick which of the current Lords get to remain as part of the 3/4 and then the remaining 1/4 of posts are put up for election. Then 5 years later we get a 1/2 elected upper house, then ten years later 3/4 and finally 15 years after the first election all the house will have been elected.

    I assumed that the Tories had reneged on something, reading the title. You people really need to chill out. Have some nice tea and a sit down. The system, if it conforms to the above, strikes me as much more politically practical than any ‘instant PR for every post’. Indeed, the fact that it’s evident people have been thinking of it in terms of how it will get through the Lords gives me hope that it will actually be carried out – it’s not just an item on a page, negotiators evidently discussed it in feasibility terms.

    I worry that many of my fellow activists are so used to their policies not being carried out they spit the dummy at every perceived compromise to the possible. Go get a book and read up on the last Liberal government to remind yourselves how it works.

  • @Mike: How nice of you to have indicated your fanatical allegiance in your name.

    Sure, this reformed the Lords. But I fail to see what it has to do with this argument. It didn’t introduce an elected House of Lords, did it?

  • Why don’t you just wait a few days to see the detail of the proposals before writing something completely speculative?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 15th May '10 - 5:09pm

    I must say that comparing Baroness Warsi to Grandma Kumar purely on the basis that she’s a woman of Asian descent doesn’t strike me as the most enlightened thing to do.

  • Miranda Ward 15th May '10 - 7:32pm

    Terry Gilbert is obviously of the ‘instant gratification’ mind set it would seem to me.

    Maybe T Gilbert’s approval would also be given were we to raise a ginormous tax on morgages, retrospecitively, thus creating a greater supply of hmes and sorting out all the countries woes in one fell swoop. No-one will give a damn 300 years from now!
    ER, wait a minute, what about the homeless? Let them live eat cake – live in hotels!

    What we do now is tomorrow’s history. Let us make this chapter (our chapter) count. Let us not traumatise most voters lest we hand the country back to Labour next time around!! Hell, a week ago we had nothing.

    Softlee sofltly catchee monkey – I am a believer in this new govt by consensus.


  • Mike,

    Labour had 13 years to get this through. Did some very minor trimming round the edges, and reneged on their manifesto promises for electoral reform.

    Do you expect us to believe their manifesto now?

    From the 1997 Labour Manifesto http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour-manifesto.shtml

    “We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.”

    It was quietly ignored as it didn’t suit Labour as they had won a landslide and didn’t need the help of the Liberal Democrats.

    AV and Lords reform is suddenly back on the agenda when Labour looked in trouble.

    We then watched some good policies go in (Minimum Wage for example), and watched our civil liberties get eroded one by one.

    I don’t trust the Tories, but I don’t trust Labour either. But we have to compromise. The country gave the Tories a larger mandate so we negotiated with them. We got concessions from them. Nothing from you. You accuse us of betrayal. May I suggest that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!

  • @Mike (Labour): I also see in Labour’s manifesto “We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.” by the way that’s the one with the title “new Labour because Britain deserves better” from 1997. For some reason I don’t remember voting in that referendum…

  • Tony Greaves 15th May '10 - 10:54pm

    The stuff in the Agreement is more or less what we have been promoting as a practical way of turning the Lords into a democratic chamber. It is clearly different from what the Tories had previously advocated (a ludicrous system of FPTP elections by counties). The “long single term” proposal is LD policy. The purpose is to differentiate from the Commons and to encourage independence of thought and action in the upper house.

    But a lot of detail still to be worked on.

    All in all a real chance of Lords reform which on the evidence of the past 13 years we were never going to get from the braindead Labour Party.

    Tony Greaves

  • @Mike (Labour): And whilst we are on manifesto quotes, how about this one from Labour’s 2001 Manifesto – “By 2010, we want Britain to break away from the decades of boom and bust”.
    So maybe it was always Labour’s intention to have one last go at boom and bust in the run up to 2010 😉

  • I have no problem in what I have heard so far.
    If it will take a long time to work its way through so be it.
    There is no rush that I can see. and there are some good, experienced lords in there.Most of the dross was shut out when it was cut down to size a while back.

  • Mike.

    Yet another Labour Manifesto commitment not met as far as reform goes… http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/13_04_05_labour_manifesto.pdf

    As part of the process of modernisation, we will remove the remaining hereditary peers and allow a free vote on the composition of the House.

  • Mike, you make a good point. We do indeed have to prove our worth in active government now. And I for one am grateful for the opportunity!

  • I can’t understand why anyone would actually want House of Lords reform!

    Say our system is wrong, outdated, unworkable – which I guess is the standpoint from which the argument for Lords reform emerges. Well then how exactly would democratising it fix any problem with currently have with our system? Or is a chance to implement democracy, especially the holy of holies, PR, the only reason reform is actually desired?

    It seems to me that Lords reform doesn’t emanate from a need for change, but an arbitrary desire for change.

    Does nobody here have a desire for socio-economic representation of society? The Lords has often been more reflective of the composition of society than the commons, and regardless of electoral system the old politician stereotype prevails if we democratise the chamber, which means women, ethnic minorities, the young and the poor will again be forced out of politics.

    What about expertise? I know you’re all democrats, and so democracy is a prize worth acheiveing regardless of the problems it may carry along with it, but surely there is something in the idea that, whilst most power be vested in a democratic chamber for accountability purposes, a second legislative chamber consisting of experts from various groups in society, religeon, business, law, media would be a valuable asset when forming new legislation? No?

    And the old fuddy duddy argument, whilst clearly imperfect, the reforms would not take it any closer to perfection. So would we not be even marginally better off if we retained the institute for its cultural value too? Our heritage, our history and our customs are really embodied in that age old Lords and reform to a new Senate like proposal, maybe even with PR thrown in, seems a price hardly worth paying for the loss we’d take.

    Still I want to hear peoples thoughts on these issues, if indeed this thread is still attracting comments?

  • One of our greatest losses was actually the creation of a Supreme Court. The CRA 05 was nothing but a lefty ideological piece of mumbo jumbo. The separation of powers was an absolute necessity when democracy was not institutionalised within society. But actually when you separate powers into 3 branches and confuddle the democratic process we do not create greater accountability or efficiency from our elected.

    If we concentrate power into one office, i.e the executive which had the position of Lord Chancellor, head of the judiciary, member of the cabinet and speaker in the House of Lords and if we the public have discretion as to who we grant that power to, then ultimately we are in control.

    My worry is that misguided lefty politicians were too quick to abolish the judicial aspect of the House of Lords. One reason being that a law lord, involved specifically in the hearing of criminal and civil cases as highest appeal court in the country, is surely in a good position to help draft legislation that concerns matters of criminal and civil law?

    And there is no doubt that Law Lords do also make law in their judicial capacity. When hearing cases and setting new legal precedents, they are actually setting a legal stance that has not been covered by parliament. You can take the judge from the law making building, but you cannot take the law making out of the judge!

    So we have a real constitutional dilemma at the moment. We have Law Lords creating new law with legal precedent on a regular basis, and helping commonwealth nations when sat as privy council court understand what our legal stance is, yet the CRA 05 actually removed their legislative powers from them.

    Seems Blair hadn’t quite thought all of this through

  • Terry Gilbert 16th May '10 - 6:23am

    @ Mike (Labour) 1 – No Mike, it’s because she’s the youngest peer. And she’s unelected.

  • Terry Gilbert 16th May '10 - 6:26am

    @ ColinW – because if we protest now, it increases the prospects for a better deal! And it will be six weeks before a detailed agreement is written and published, AIUI.

  • Terry Gilbert 16th May '10 - 6:29am

    @ (another) Terry – I think it needs to be fully Reformed in this Parliament; the Tory commitment to Reform may be only as deep as their lack of majority!

  • George Kendall 16th May '10 - 3:10pm


    You’re taking the most pessimistic interpretation of those words as fact.

    My interpretation of: “It is likely that this bill will advocate single long terms of office” and “It is likely there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers” is that existing peers will get the same single long term. So Baroness Warsi will be a peer for another six to ten years.

    “a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote” That was inevitable. Labour is currently overrepresented in the Lords, because they’ve been in power 13 years. If the coalition doesn’t adjust for this, it’ll make it much harder to get legislation through. But the good news is the welcome precedent that sets, one which means that, for the short-medium term, the Lib Dems should get 23%. I would suggest that peers appointed from today only get a five year term, which would mean there’d not have to be grandfathering of the new peers.

    To risk pointing out the blindingly obvious. When you wrote your previous piece, you were suggesting that Lords reform on its own was enough. Instead we have AV *and* a gradual reform of the Lords. I’d call that a win for our negotiators.

    Finally, now it is out of office, I think the Labour party will adopt a more radical policy. So, if Labour win in five years time, we’ll probably end up with a wholly elected House of Lords at that time.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th May '10 - 10:13am

    Steve D on another thread has posted a link to this Times story:

    “David Cameron and Nick Clegg will create more than 100 peers to ensure that controversial legislation gets through Parliament.
    The coalition government has agreed to reshape the House of Lords, which is currently dominated by Labour, to be “reflective of the vote” at the general election. That saw the Tories and the Liberal Democrats together get 59 per cent.”

    If that is accurate – and I realise there has been a lot of inaccurate reporting over the last few days – I find it very disturbing. The agreement gives the impression that the House of Lords is going to be elected by PR. But that would depend entirely on what this “grandfathering” business means. If it means that all existing peers will remain peers for life, then there won’t actually be a democratically elected House of Lords for generations.

    If large numbers of government peers are going to be appointed now, that is another large step away from a genuinely elected House of Lords.

    Why should this be necessary at all? The Times says it’s because the House of Lords is currently “dominated by Labour”. That’s nonsense. Less than 30% of peers take the Labour whip, compared with 36% who take the Tory and Lib Dem whips. If the government is going to create 100 more peers, that will give it an overall majority over Labour. crossbenchers, bishops and others.

    I thought the proposal for the House of Lords was one of the best aspects of the coalition agreement. If this report is accurate, it looks instead like one of the worst.

  • Terry Gilbert 30th May '10 - 12:19pm

    Sorry not to have been back here for a couple of weeks.
    @George – of course you are right, and it was my intention to spell out the MOST pessimistic interpretation of the agreement, on the day before Special Conference! Note my plea for someone to tell me I’m wrong. I still hope I am, but nothing definitive yet.
    @Anthony – thanks for the links. The Times seems to be making the error of assuming that Oakeshott was demanding all of them be created at once, whereas the Agreement says ‘with the objective of’ – which could mean ‘with the (ultimate) objective of..’ Disappointing not to see any more detail in the final agreement – the wording is eactly the same. I guess they have been busy with other things (especially this weekend!).

    Any info on the progress of setting up the Committee (the one that will ‘bring forward proposals by December 2010’), and who is on it, would be gratefully received.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Steve Trevethan
    Thank you for your thoughtful piece. Attached are some questions Mr. Davey might help our society by asking Mr. Starmer before coming to a possible coalition...
  • Peter Davies
    "In 2019 we aimed at increasing our national appeal and look where that got us!" We targeted reasonably well going into 2019. The problem was not that we aimed...
  • Marco
    In 2005 as I recall we didn't really talk about Iraq until the last week or two of the campaign so hopefully something similar might happen with Brexit this tim...
  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    @Graham Jeffs - yes, I am fortunate to be living in a target seat, although I was campaigning for about 20 years before we won it. It's a long game. My point...
  • Alex Macfie
    The mistake made by Clegg & co wasn't going into coalition, it was the way they did it, going in too quickly and conducting it as a "love-in" rather than a ...