Marathon Lords’ debate: the end of the peer show?
Delaying tactics in the House of Lords, designed to wreck voting reform, could signal an end to the 'gentlemanly' way the upper house conducts business.
Visitors to the Palace of Westminster can tell when they have passed from the House of Commons to the House of Lords because the ornate Victorian carpets change from green to red.
The members wandering the corridors are different too: older certainly, as you would expect in a chamber made up of retired politicians, bishops, judges and expert political appointees. But the Lords are also much more polite than MPs.
Now, however, this gentlemanly atmosphere has been shattered. A running battle has broken out between the government, desperate to get changes to the voting system through parliament, and opposition Labour peers refusing to stick to the conventions of the upper house.
The stand-off has forced endless debates and even overnight stays, with food, camp beds and board games provided to help the troops on both sides, some of whom are in their 80s, endure it.
Ministers want to do three things: equalise the size of constituencies, reduce the number of MPs and ask voters to decide whether to change the UK's first-past-the-post system of choosing our representatives in general elections.
Labour objects to the constituency changes and to the measures being bundled together in one Bill. Opposition peers have been exploiting the lack of formal timetabling in the Lords with deliberate delaying tactics known as filibustering.
Irrelevant subjects ranging from prime numbers to the last cannibal to live in the UK have been used to drag out debate.
Furious ministers allege 'bully boy' behaviour. They need the Bill to be passed and become law by February 16th in order to hold the planned referendum on the voting system on May 5th. There could be three more days of debate this week, starting today.
As an unelected chamber, the Lords is supposed to revise plans brought in by a government drawn from members of the elected Commons. A convention, known as the Salisbury Doctrine, bans peers from blocking measures promised in election manifestos.
But the current government, formed as a coalition between two parties, did not stand on a single manifesto, giving room for opposition peers to depart from the usual rules of behaviour.
Without a compromise, there's no end in sight and wider repercussions loom.
Conservative and Lib Dem peers have begun to threaten a change in House of Lords rules, citing a 'serious constitutional crisis.' So this show of force by a group of peers could result in a reduction in their powers, and even add to calls for speedy and wholesale revamp of their role.
- 'Unelected peers should not block measures to reform our democracy.' Do you agree?
- How important are traditions and conventions of behaviour? Do they stifle us or keep us civilised?
- Prepare a five minute presentation to argue for something that you believe in. Then cut it down to one minute – can you make it as persuasive?
- Research the architecture and lavish decorations of the House of Lords. Design your own ideal debating chamber. Would it have two sets of opposite benches or a horseshoe shape, as in some other countries?
Some People Say...
“The House of Lords makes the UK a laughing stock”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What is a filibuster?
- The filibuster (a deliberately long-winded debate to slow or block new laws) has a long history – it was used in Ancient Rome to limit Caesar's power. In the US, the upper chamber, also known as the Senate, has seen so many filibusters recently that reform is high up the political agenda.
- So it is being abused?
- Defenders of the practice say it protects the political minority. But the most famous filibusters in America involved a group of Democrat Senators from the southern states trying to block equal rights for black citizens. The record for longest filibuster is held by Senator Strom Thurmond at 24 hours and 18 minutes.
- Is this practice frequent in the Lords?
- No. The US Senate is elected, but the House of Lords is a mix of appointments, Church of England bishops, judges and a few hereditary peers who inherited their seats with their family titles. As the unelected chamber, the Lords tends to behave itself and respect the right of the elected Commons to make our laws.