Friday, 23 August 2013

The Wrong Type Of Labour Peer - The Genius Of Tony Blair

Late last month and earlier this month there was the fuss about whether the Government was packing the House of Lords with its supporters.

Accusations have always been made that the Government - whether red, blue or an orangey-blue - are doing this.

Currently, Labour has 212 life peers, who have been appointed, as well as 4 hereditaries elected under the House of Lords Act 1999 and who thus avoided expulsion in November 1999.

If we look at the numbers of life peers who are still alive who took up their seats in the tenure of each leader, then we get:

Leader From To Labour Ex-Labour Leave of Absence Total
Harold Wilson February 1963 April 1976 2 0 1 3
James Callaghan April 1976 November 1980 3 0 1 4
Michael Foot November 1980 October 1983 2 0 2 4
Neil Kinnock October 1983 July 1992 16 0 2 18
John Smith July 1992 May 1994 5 0 1 6
Margaret Beckett May 1994 July 1994 0 0 0 0
Tony Blair July 1994 June 2007 137 10 6 153
Gordon Brown June 2007 May 2010 8 0 1 9
Harriet Harman May 2010 September 2010 28 0 0 28
Ted Miliband September 2010 Very, very soon 10 0 0 10
Total 211 10 14 235

Notice one thing that is mentioned is the Leave of Absence. There are various reasons why someone might hold an eligible peerage but not be allowed to sit in the House of Lords - with a full list here. There is no-one under 21 (this uses to be valid before the expulsion of the hereditary peers as an hereditary peerage can, of course, be inherited at any age), no-one excluded for not being a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen, no bankrupts, and no-one convicted of treason (in an extreme case, as the Titles Deprivation Act 1917 allowed for, a person can be stripped of their peerage for treason).

That leaves, as the list shows, various Justices of the Supreme Court who are disqualified under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and Sarah Ludford, the Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for London, is disqualified under the European Parliament (House of Lords Disqualification) Regulations 2008.

One thing to notice that, at the bottom of the table it states there are 211 appointed Labour life peers, while there are 212. The anomaly is May Blood - one of the peers in the June 1999 list of working peers which gave Labour, for the first time, more life peers than the Conservatives - who was initially from the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, and is now on the Labour benches.

There are also the ex-Labour peers, all of whom took their seats when Blair was leader - Nazir Ahmed; former Agriculture Minister Jack Cunningham; Brian Mackenzie; Martin O'Neill; Swraj Paul; John Sewel, who gave his name to the Sewel Convention; former Culture, Media & Sport Secretary Chris Smith; Paul Truscott; Pola Uddin; and Barbara Young. Some of these are losing the Labour whip through misdemeanours, while others are simply a wish to be politically neutral (e.g. Smith is Chairman of the Environment Agency)

Then there are the peers on a Leave of Absence. From the Wilson era is Arthur Jones, who has the earliest existing life peerage (the earliest Labour peer still in the House of Lords is Marica Williams, another Wilson appointee), although by the time he took a Leave of Absence he was sitting on the Crossbenches.

From the Callaghan era there is Betty Lockwood, and from the Foot era there are Olive Nicol and Gwilym Prys-Davies.

From the Kinnock era there are Donald Macauley and former Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason, while the Smith era gives us Richard Attenborough.

The Blair era provides former International Development Secretary Valerie Amos; Vice-President of the European Commission with responsibility for the Common Foreign & Security Policy Cathy Ashton; David Sainsbury; David Simon; George Simpson; and Terence Thomas, while from the Brown era there is just Shriti Vadera.

How do people become life peers? Traditionally, there are the two main honours lists - the Birthday Honours List in early June and the New Year Honours List - which these days tend not to be used to give peerages. The main way is through the parties drawing up, about once a year, lists of working peers.

In Government there is a system of ad hoc appointments to enable new ministers in neither House to sit in the House of Lords. After Labour won the May 1997 general election, Blair appointed Simon as Minister for Trade & Competitiveness in Europe.

It was Brown who was the expert at doing this. Upon taking office, he gave peerages to not only Vadera, but Ara Darzi and Alan West, to enable them to serve in the Government.

And in October 2008, Brown pulled Peter Mandelson from his role as European Commissioner for Trade (replacing him by Ashton, creating the interesting question whether Mandelson would now be doing her job if the switch hadn't happened) to become Business & Enterprise Secretary, followed in June 2009 by appointing Glenys Kinnock as Minister for Europe - a slightly dodgy move as, although this was after that month's elections to the European Parliament, MEPs serve from July to July, so she was still technically an MEP for Wales (akin to elections to the American House of Representatives taking place in November, but Congresspersons not officially taking their posts until two months later).

Another ad hoc way involves moving serving MPs. The last example was in August 1998, when the then-Defence Secretary, George Robertson, was elevated to the peerage, and didn't step down from his role until October. This reversion to peers running Government departments (except for the Lord Chancellor's Department - now forming the nucleus of the Ministry of Justice) was followed by the example of Amos later in the Blair Government, as well as Mandelson, who by the time Labour left office (with Andrew Adonis being Transport Secretary from the House of Lords) had added First Secretary of State and Lord President of the Council to his job title.

Elevating an MP to the peerage to serve as a minister involves a by-election (unless it is close to a general election), so is a bit of a gamble.

Other methods are the two special Honours Lists. The first type is the Dissolution Honours List, which - as the name implies - happens just after Parliament is dissolved, and sees retiring MPs getting peerages. The second type is the Resignation Honours List, which is the farewell from a retiring or defeated Prime Minister - although neither Blair nor Brown did this.

The power to appoint or nominate peers is an important one for a party leader. While the first Dissolution Honours List after becoming leader can be a time for "encouraging" long-serving MPs in safe seats to retire and pave the way for new MPs more in line with the leader's ideology, later appointments or nominations are the chance to stamp the leader's philosophy on the party - long-term.

It was often said when forner Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was at her peak that the real Opposition was not the Labour benches opposite her, but the House of Lords, full of Conservative peers (many hereditaries) from an earlier era, who did not buy into her philosophy.

Blair often got criticised for flooding the House of Lords with Blairite peers, but I wonder if he were playing a canny long-term game. I said recently that looking at the current Labour party, it was hard to believe that Blair was ever its leader.

And I wonder whether this massive creation of peers - which he was within his rights to do - was not to prevent his legacy being overturned by a Conservative-led Government, but by a Labour one.

The House of Lords is more-or-less full. There is no way the next Labour Prime Minister could create loads of new peers. Blair created a peer logjam - there is a whole generation there, with his values and ideas, owing their place to him, which has to move on before there can be any peerage creation on the same scale.

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