The 2015–17 Parliament was the first time in history that the Conservatives were in government with no easily assembled majority in the House of Lords. This has fundamentally altered the role that Labour is able to play in the Lords and, conversely, that peers are able to play in the Labour party. Yet the political significance of this situation has not yet been fully appreciated by Labour, a party which remains culturally antagonistic and constitutionally wary of the Lords.
In November 2017, we interviewed key figures of the Labour peers’ group, including the late Baroness Hollis of Heigham, about their experiences of navigating this new constitutional territory during the 2015–17 Parliament. In this article, we ask how the powers of a conservative House can be used for progressive ends.
Power and restraint in the Lords
In 1990, when Hollis entered the Lords, the chamber was still dominated by hereditary peers, with Labour something of an insurgent force. As she later reflected, ‘we just did what we could … we used to win things just to sort of raise morale’. Although this sometimes involved the fun of ‘ambushes’, during which members were plied with gin and hidden in cupboards until the vote, it was never flippant.
As Hollis knew, effective politics in the Lords depends upon the slow, invisible work of building alliances among colleagues from all parties and none. This sits uncomfortably within Labour’s wider political culture. And while the party may have been happy with the limited victories its peers were able to achieve against the might of the hereditaries, under New Labour the situation changed both numerically and symbolically.
Illegitimacy and opportunity
Due to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, it is only since 2015 that the true impact of the 1999 reforms on the Lords as a legislative arena has been apparent. And many Labour peers remain deeply conflicted about the second chamber.
As a social democratic party, Labour has, rightly, imagined itself as the party of the Commons, in opposition to the Lords. While this relationship has often been more congenial in practice than we might expect, the very idea of Commons primacy was based on the historical assumption that a popularly elected government might want to spend money against the wishes of a c/Conservative upper chamber.
This is, as the constitutional analysts Meg Russell and Daniel Glover have pointed out, what makes the current political situation in the Lords particularly novel. Because Labour’s challenge to the Conservatives tends to be over questions of public spending, the convention that the Commons has primacy on ‘money bills’ matters in a way in which it did not before. Moreover, the respective roles of the Houses have effectively been reversed, with the Lords defending public spending from a Commons set on retrenchment.
Yet, constitutional politics are lagging behind this changing reality. Labour remains cautious about any measures (such as the introduction of elections) that might increase the legitimacy of the Lords, for fear that it would threaten the freedom of action of a future Labour government. But what this argument doesn’t allow for is a situation where a Labour‐dominated Lords might want to limit the actions of a Conservative government.
How can Labour peers challenge the government on questions of public spending, without calling into question either their own legitimacy or the doctrine of Commons primacy? Hollis’ answer to this question was simply ‘work the system that we’ve got’.
Pragmatism and ideology
The balance between ideology and pragmatism (or ‘doctrine and decision’, as she once phrased it) occupied Hollis all her political life. Similarly, many Labour peers focus on their ability to ‘make a difference’ as a way of reconciling themselves to what one called ‘the bollocks of lordy‐ism’, which is at odds with both their class backgrounds and political identities.
Since 2015 the Labour Lords have experienced a number of high-profile clashes with the government, several of which have ended with Conservative threats to abolish the House of Lords altogether. While they, rightly, insist that they have acted within the constitutional conventions, this tension highlights the extent to which one of the basic assumptions of our constitutional system (a radical Commons and conservative Lords) has been upended.
The most high‐profile challenge that the Labour Lords have so far mounted to the Conservative government was on its proposed reforms to working tax credits. Instead of rejecting the legislation, the Labour Lords, led by Hollis, took the constitutionally innovative but politically cautious step of securing a delay. This created time for pressure to build both in the country and in the Commons, which resulted in the Government revising its own proposals. This was an odd inversion of the roles of the two Houses, but one that was curiously respectful of their respective constitutional roles.
The power to delay is one of the few real powers at the House of Lords’ disposal. Since 2015, Labour Lords have made full use of this small-c conservative power, paradoxically, in the service of ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ policies.
From its roots as an outsider party, Labour is now a key political force even in the most conservative arena of the parliamentary system.
It is now crucial for the party to consider how it might incorporate the second chamber into both its practical and symbolic politics, and how it can use this new source of constitutional power without accommodating to it.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal.
In memory of Baroness Patricia Hollis of Heigham, 1941–2018