House of Lords Reform Threatens to Split Coalition

Liberal Democrats want an elected second chamber. Conservative are critical of reform.

View of the Houses of Parliament from Whitehall, London, England, March 31, 2004
View of the Houses of Parliament from Whitehall, London, England, March 31, 2004 (Wikimedia Commons)

The economic proposals which the British government announced in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday have been largely overshadowed by talk of reforming the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.

The coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats intends to trim down the size of the Lords to three hundred. Of these, 80 percent would be elected according to a proportional voting system.

Although there was crossparty support for House of Lords reform in the 2010 general election campaign, it appears that this may no longer be the case. Some see it as the straw that could break the camel’s back for the coalition.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was mocked in Parliament by Conservatives, backbenchers of his own party and Labour members as he delivered a speech on the proposed reforms. Labour and Liberal Democratic parliamentarians believe that Clegg should have stuck to his guns and demanded a wholly elected second chamber instead of compromising with the Conservatives.

At a recent meeting of the Conservative 1922 Committee, many normally loyal backbenchers also voiced their disagreement with the proposals. Gavin Barwell, a Conservative member for Croydon Central in south London, said that a backbench revolt “will be off the scale” and it will make last year’s revolt over the European Union “look like a tea party.”

Both Baroness Warsi, Conservative Party co-chair, and Phillip Hammond, the defense secretary, have added to the tension in recent days with the baroness arguing that the Lords “should not be the government focus” and Hammond saying, “the reforms should not be a central issue.”

These quotes can add more tension to the coalition and will have been received badly by Liberal Democrats as the reform of the House of Lords is their only remaining “flagship policy” since the referendum on the alternative vote in May 2011 failed to deliver a majority for electoral reform.

So could these remarks, the fact that Labour is planning to oppose the bill in the Commons and the fact that the Lords are planning to oppose it, mean that not only the reforms will not pass but in the process could lead to the beginning of the end for the coalition?

Looking back to history, the Liberals in 1911 only managed to take away the Lords’ power to veto legislation. In 1917, they recommended reforms were never enacted after the Lords rejected them multiple times and finally, Tony Blair and New Labour in their election manifesto for 1997 stated that they intended to reform the Lords to an elected second chamber however by 1999, they had not even manged to remove all the hereditary peers.

With even more opposition than Labour faced brewing, not to mention the fact that many senior legislators see the lords as a way to supplement their pension, it is doubtful that the reforms will be passed by the end of this parliament. Britain could end up waiting another hundred years before the composition and powers of the House of Lords is reformed in a meaningful way.

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