Tony Greaves writes…Challenging the Tories, Liberal Democrat lords are in the vanguard

We have just seen another week in which the Liberal Democrats in the Lords led the way in challenging the Conservative Government. The high profile issue was votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the European Referendum when no fewer than 91 of our members voted for the amendment, out of a total of 107 – five are still waiting to come in – with none against, an astonishing record turnout of 87%. Labour managed 74% and the Tories 71. (And it didn’t even include me, I was stuck at home in Lancashire feeling poorly and miserable).

And then Sue Miller (my good friend Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer) moved an amendment to give the vote to all UK citizens living in the EU – and why not, it’s their future as much as or even more than ours? But Labour more or less abstained (four in favour, 37 against – these no doubt being mainly the anti-EU little Englanders in their ranks) and the amendment went down by 214 to 116. There were 84 LD votes in favour and again none against. Yet another principled Liberal charge while Labour sat on the sidelines!

The Government have been defeated in the Lords 21 times since the General Election. They don’t like it but why should they have their own way all the time on the basis of an election in which almost two out of three voted against them? There is a coterie of ranting Tory backbenchers who complain that we are “over-represented” in the Lords (by about the same proportion as we are under-represented in the Commons as it happens) and demand we are “cut back”. But the interim settlement in the Lords in 1999 when over 500 hereditaries were waved on their way was based on an important statistical principle – that the Government of the day would never again have a majority in the Upper House.

That principle was sorely tested during the Coalition, though it held true thanks to the Crossbenches and it’s the case now. And so on a range of important Bills such as Cities and Devolution, Child Care, and Energy the Lords scrutinised and improved the legislation. Then the Government lost the vote on the Statutory Instrument on Tax Credits (since when the constitution has mysteriously not crumbled as they forecast), and on the voting age for the referendum peers have asked the Commons to think again. And on all these, the Liberal Democrat group has either been in the driving seat or we’ve been the pivotal body of votes in the House. And so it will go on.

It’s good for the Lords, it’s good for the Government, it’s good for the country – and it’s good for the Liberal Democrats. Yes, it’s a situation full of ironies, but it’s the real world in which we will be living for some time. And if not the Lords, and if not the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, who? The party as a whole should be proud of what our campaigning band of peers are doing and should be cheering us on, providing the support and the campaigning backup in the country that will make our work that much more effective, and welcoming our presence in counsels of our party.

* Tony Greaves is a backbench Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Stand for election to the councils of the party then. We’ll judge individuals on their merits. Just don’t expect special privileges because you are Lords. (Especially now.)

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Nov '15 - 11:22am

    Incidentally, the principle of ‘the government of the day not having a majority’ in the Lords is one reason why the ideas floated by Labour during their leadership election of a Senate elected indirectly based either the proportion of the HoC vote during a General Election or even by the proportion of HoC seats are dangerous bilge. But if this is an unviolable principle, rather than an aspirational guideline, then it also places a question over STV for a future senate as it might not secure this outcome.

  • I always thought that if we were going to have a fully elected Senate, it should be via PR from a list (and, in my ideal world, with 20 or so term-limited appointed crossbenchers to make up the numbers). That’d be the simplest way to ensure a) that there was no government majority, and b) retaining the very real virtues of appointing peers who are experts in various fields but who otherwise wouldn’t have considered Parliament, either to a party list or directly as crossbenchers.

    In the meantime, it is excellent that the Lib Dem peers are being such an active force for good in Parliament. That, at least, has not been in doubt of late.

  • So Lib Dem Lords vote against the Government on points of principle, just as the MPs do? Well so they should! Otherwise what is the point of any of them? Hardly anything to write home about!

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Nov '15 - 12:56pm

    Obsessive-Trainspotter-Pedantry Department reply to John Grout…

    Proportionality would not guarantee that the government would ‘never’ have a majority in either chamber, it just makes it less likely.

    If you very very strongly believe that in a revising chamber, the propotion of seats should not be identical to that in the lower chamber so that the governing party is held to account and has checks and balances, you ideally need a different system to the lower chamber, possibly one that prevents _any_ party having a majority — even if that is proportional to the vote.

  • I don’t see any part of the LibDems actually acting like a serious political party except for the peers. Most peers have many, many years of excellent service to the party and deserve to be cut a little slack for that reason if no other. The reason most are in the Lords is because they were the very best the LibDems had – that’s why they were nominated. To see them getting lectures from groups like “Rocking the Boat” or members who have never faced an election, complaining about a lack of democracy is a little daft.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Nov '15 - 6:08pm

    “Phyllis” – how sad that you can be quite so churlish (and anonymous).

    Tony Greaves

  • We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,


    Well, I’m not going to be churlish. You deserve great credit for what you and your noble chums have tried to do this week….. and you personally have kept the flame of proper Liberalism alight through many dark days in the past.

    When there’s a difference of opinion – last week – we can cope with it. We go back a long way and we come from where a spade is a blinking shovel….. but you will always have my respect and affection….. as will BPA !.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Nov '15 - 12:18am

    David – you and I remember the “Votes at 18” campaigns run by the YLs in the early 1960s! Same arguments in those days by the opponents.


  • peter tyzack 21st Nov '15 - 9:44am

    strange how our Lords can get some thing so right, but others so wrong..

  • Richard Underhill 21st Nov '15 - 10:17am

    Matt (Bristol) 20th Nov ’15 – 12:56pm Yes. Turkey elects its MPs mainly by a proportional system of party list, but 10% is too high a threshold. The effect of such tresholds is to exclude small parties, although the intention is to exclude extreme parties.

  • Sadie Smith 21st Nov '15 - 5:07pm

    Good comment Malcolm. I agree.
    If anyone is bothered by titles, we mostly don’t use them about our friends in the Upper House.

  • I’m not churlish? I’m just not going to praise people to the rafters for simply doing their jobs.

  • Malc ” To see them getting lectures from groups like “Rocking the Boat” or members who have never faced an election, complaining about a lack of democracy is a little daft.”

    Not at all daft. Many of the peers (I could name names!) are not the best of the Lib Dems. As for facing an election, these are people who have been REJECTED by the electorate and yet allowed back into a position of power! That cannot be right on any level.

    And do you really need reminding why Rock the Boat is necessary?

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