The Constitution Unit


Press Release: Reassessing the Lords: a major new study

18 July 2013

Contemporary House of Lords

The Constitution Unit announces the publication of a major study on the House of Lords by its Deputy Director Meg Russell - the leading authority on the subject. The Contemporary House of Lords, published this week by Oxford University Press, provides an up-to-date and readable examination of the chamber since its reform in 1999, and in doing so challenges many common myths.

The Lords tends to reach the news and public consciousness only in connection to its future reform. But most reform attempts fail, as the coalition government's did dramatically in 2012. Meanwhile, this book shows how the change in 1999 that removed most of the chamber's hereditary members gave the House of Lords a new central position in British politics. Understanding its dynamics has thus become essential to understanding politics and parliament in Britain.

The book's main themes and arguments are as follows:

  • The present chamber is far more modern and 'normal' than many would assume. It has the same proportion of women, and a greater number of ethnic minority members, than the House of Commons. The ermine-trimmed image masks a chamber full of professional high achievers. Today's Lords also, ironically, reflects the balance of party vote shares better than the House of Commons. All parties/groups have changed their appointment practices, and peers are much more active than they used to be.
  • The Lords has empowered new actors in the policy process, largely unseen. Under Labour 1999-2010 the Liberal Democrats were the key 'swing voters' in the Lords. The chamber inflicted over 450 defeats, and extracted frequent policy concessions from government (most obviously on civil liberties). With the Lib Dems in coalition post-2010, the independent Crossbenchers now decide voting outcomes. But this central role of independent members at Westminster is largely unknown and unseen by the public.
  • A stronger Lords post-1999 has also strengthened the Commons. Power relations between the two chambers are often seen as a zero-sum game, but in fact the Lords' greater confidence to defeat government has empowered MPs. Amendments negotiated in the Lords often follow up points raised in the Commons. This has strengthened not only the opposition (including Lib Dems under Labour) but government backbenchers as well. An analysis of Lords defeats 1999-2012 shows that a key factor in whether government accepts a defeat is the presence of rebels on its own side.
  • The unelected Lords can be seen as 'legitimate' in some ways, though this is disputed. Post-1999, peers feel themselves more legitimate to challenge government, particularly given the chamber's party balance. Political scientists tend to measure legitimacy through public opinion, and polls (including those commissioned by the author) show that the public is at worst ambivalent, and at best quite supportive of the Lords. They tend to support the chamber's policy role and interventions, while an analysis of newspaper editorials shows that the Lords often gets a good press - particularly when it challenges government.
  • Prospects for large-scale reform are not good. The public's ambivalent opinion provides little impetus for Lords reform. Polls show support for an elected chamber, but also opposition to one full of party politicians. For over 100 years politicians have feared that giving the chamber democratic legitimacy might make it too strong, and this remains a key stumbling block. The Lib Dems want reform, but the two main parties are unlikely to promise more than a referendum. If put to a referendum, such proposals might well fail.
  • Nonetheless, small-scale reforms could have important effects. Throughout the 20th century the Lords was transformed by a series of small steps, into a far more modern, representative and confident institution than it used to be. Further small changes (such as limiting prime ministerial patronage, removing the last 92 hereditary peers, and even dropping the wearing of ermine for the Queen's speech) could enhance its confidence further, and improve both the reputation and the power of parliament.
  • The Lords' history demonstrates fascinating aspects of both continuity and change. For example, the chamber contained many more former MPs in the 19th and early 20th centuries than it does today, while the presence of independent Crossbenchers is a relatively recent (post-war) innovation. Even the largely hereditary chamber pre-1958 was less 'aristocratic' than often thought, as new peerages were always created to reward political favourites. One constant feature for 150 years, however, is an inability to agree on reform.

On the back cover of the book BBC Deputy political editor James Landale comments "Forget the ermine and expenses. This book shows why the House of Lords matters more than ever in shaping the laws that affect us all. A masterful re-assessment of the second chamber in the 21st century."

Notes for editors