Electing the Lords: Issues 4 – Independence
My fourth post on Lords election discusses the impact election would have on the independence of members of the Upper House.
Let’s start by looking at the most convenient example of the functioning of an elected chamber – the House of Commons. One of the frequent criticisms of Members of Parliament (MPs) is that they are apparently slaves to their party leadership. The criticisms are a little overdone, as party discipline is part and parcel of what we expect of MPs if we elect them to support their party’s legislative programme. But there is a rub; MPs can and are coerced into voting against their personal misgivings in favour of legislation they may not fully understand or support.
Why does this happen? Simple: MPs are salaried and have access to expenses. For MPs, these are more than just recompense for the good services they provide to the country – they are their livelihood (as they should be! Otherwise only the wealthy would stand for election). Therefore, MPs are dependent upon re-election not only to realise their careers and ambitions, but to essentially keep their jobs. MPs keep their jobs, by and large, with the funding and marketing skills of their political party.
And in this we see the power of the Whips. MPs can be (more frequently) instructed, encouraged, persuaded, and (less frequently)threatened to obey their party leadership in votes and debates in the House. Their very careers and aspirations to high office can turn on the grace and favour of the party leadership. In return, the MPs retain the ‘whip’, which is the support of the party both in providing information, granting access to senior party leaders, getting ministerial careers or committee positions and, ultimately, in standing for re-election when Parliament is dissolved.
Party patronage is unavoidably all-important in electoral success; the low number of independent MPs in the Commons is testament to this. Why should an elected Upper House be any different?
The House of Lords, however, is a little different. The government can and does get opposed and challenged – definitely far more often than in the Commons. Unlike five-year MPs, peerages are for life. A peer cannot be removed from the House unless by Act of Parliament (the last case being in 1917).
Whips do exist in the Lords, of course, and voting patterns there show that peers do tend to vote, on the whole, with their party – but as Lord Norton shows(1), this is attributable to a kind of tribal agreement with their party’s position:
“Peers are able to operate free of the constraints on and incentives available to the party leadership, activists and voters in other countries. There are no institutional, or behavioural, explanations for this cohesion. Members enter the House predisposed to vote for their party and they do so. Because the government enjoys no majority in the House, it is vulnerable to defeat. It therefore has to work hard to carry the House with it. What this entails is not necessarily persuading members individually of the value of their case but rather persuading the parties in the House; members will follow the cues of their party leaders. The whips serve to facilitate cohesion but are not the cause of it.”
So it’s no surprise, for example, if Labour peers vote for left-wing policies, and so on. They wouldn’t be Labour peers if they didn’t agree with it. Emma Crewe in her book Lords of Parliament(2) argues that much of it comes down to the Lords whips exploiting human needs for social belonging and the desire not to be an outsider – but this requires tact and sophistication, and not a little compromise. Lords whips need to be courteous and not take their compatriots for granted; Commons whips are feared and notoriously ruthless for using every trick in the book.
There are cries that, as they cannot easily be removed, this means Lords are unaccountable. But the Government’s most recent White Papers have proposed to shore up independence by giving Senators single, long terms. Essentially, we’re getting the exact same thing as the present, but an immovable body of careerist politicians instead of dedicated experts.
Nonetheless, the power of the whips in the Lords is substantially less than the Commons. Meg Russell says there are relatively few consequences when Lords rebel, unlike those for MPs (3):
“Lords whips are limited to argument and encouragement to get Lords to vote their way. They can offer ministerial positions, but the fact is that for most peers, that won’t work, either – they’re on the whole past the prime of their careers and won’t be interested in the hassle of a poorly paid ministerial job, particularly as it would clash with their own non-parliamentary careers. They can withdraw the party whip, but for most Lords this would be more an inconvenience than a mark of shame (unlike in the Commons). They can’t threaten them with the denial of party support, as they are appointed for life. In short, there’s nothing a whip can do to force a Lord to vote against their conscience. They can only use persuasive argument.”
This gives the Lords one of its best qualities – that when it disagrees with the Commons, on both big and little issues, it will most likely be not on cheap political points-scoring, but on a constructive basis to highlight and address real problems that matter.
This would disappear in an elected House, in obvious ways. Paul Vallely in the Independent explains:
“It [appointment]…brings free-thinking and independence of mind which do not characterise the whipped party political process. Because of their age, in most peers ambition has been replaced by wisdom, which is why many of them are content to speak and vote only when their particular expertise is required. Their lifelong tenure ensures their independence. They are beholden to no party or lobby but conscience and common sense. Not all fit such a description – some are there only because they have funded a political party or played tennis with a prime minister – but the description holds good of enough of them.”
The other thing to worry about is the existence of the Crossbenchers, that third of the House which have no political label and are subject to no whipping whatsoever. Crossbenchers elect a Convenor who informs them of upcoming votes and debates, but beyond that, their vote is up to them and based on their personal opinion. In a fully elected House, they would disappear.
Meg Russell and Maria Sciara in 2009 also add that Crossbenchers have been crucial in defusing major cross-party disagreements, describing them as something like ‘a jury to whom the politicians in the chamber appeal’. In essence, because they hold the balance of power, Crossbenchers help to further mitigate the relatively nonpartisan nature of the Lords.
The Crossbenchers used to be dismissed by and large as ‘Tories in disguise’, but since 1999 more and more peers from varied backgrounds, in particular from the voluntary sector, have taken their places among the Crossbenchers. Russell and Sciara feel that election would undermine their effectiveness (4):
“At the normative level, policy makers in the UK have generally agreed that maintenance of a large number of Crossbenchers is desirable. But this presents genuine policy problems. One requires accepting that some members will remain unelected, as an electoral system delivering high levels of independent representation is unlikely to be found. But even if this is accepted, it is a challenge to find members who will attend parliament regularly without the pressure and the support provided by a party whip.”
And this is the contradiction that those who consider an 80% elected House would be acceptable have to resolve: if appointment is such an evil in today’s world, in which election is about as trendy as jeans and t-shirts, why is a 20% appointed House permissible? Is it somehow 80% more legitimate than the existing Lords? My opinion is either we have a completely appointed Senate or a completely elected one; a partly elected House makes a mockery of the argument that election is an inherent good.
It should be clear, therefore, that in the parliamentary system independence of elected representatives is difficult to compromise with the national mandate of the parties to enforce their political manifesto, putting MPs into conflict. Lords are also subject to this conflict. But there’s a significant difference between the two; while MPs must answer for their votes and speeches to their constituents for their jobs, but also to party managers for their careers. Lords answer to their fields of expertise for their speeches and votes, but cannot easily be browbeaten by party managers, apart from by appealing to ideological loyalties. As can be seen, electing the Upper House would replicate the Commons system, and could threaten the existence and effectiveness of the Crossbenchers.
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2) Emma Crewe, Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics (2005), p 130–60