November 11, 2006

Seats for Peerages

With the untimely resignation this week from Ministerial office of the UK’s largest political donor in history, Lord Sainsbury, the loans for peerages scandal has once again hit the front pages. Regardless of whether or not his resignation had more to do with the need to keep Malcolm Wicks in a job after his energy brief was moved upstairs to the Secretary of State, Gracchii has decided to take this opportunity to consider another New Labour abuse of the House of Lords: the practise of offering MPs whose expiry date has passed a seat in the Lords.

Whilst it has always been a feature of political life, New Labour have turned it into an art form. The problem facing Blair when he came to office, and Cameron is now struggling with, is how to renew your parliamentary party so that it better reflects the composition of the wider electorate. In simple terms, at that time Blair needed his parliamentarians to be more at home in gastro pubs than working men’s clubs if he was to bring his party into line with Middle England.

The relative weakness of the local Labour associations gave him the opportunity. All women shortlists were imposed, the Islington elite were parachuted into the North East and elsewhere and the rest as they say was electoral history.

But once in Office the reform of the House of Lords, the removal of the rump of the hereditary peers offered Blair the chance to ratchet this renewal up another level.

MP after MP in the North East, Wales and the other Labour heartlands were bought off with the promise of a life peerage in exchange for relishing their seats in the Commons. Retired MPs would take their seats in the upper chamber sometimes only a matter of months following the election, safe in the knowledge that they would sit out the rest of their lives with all the privilege that such a position entails.

Why should we be so concerned? After all the result, we would all agree has been positive: it is because of this very practice that in the shortest time possible the House has made tremendous strides in terms of ethnic and sexual diversity.

Moreover it is no coincidence that it is the Labour party, blessed with weak local constituency parties, who have been able to fill their benches with the likes of Miliband and Douglas, who both gained their seats because of this practice, whilst the Tories, shackled with militant local agents, who have struggled to get their brightest stars into parliament.

Because if those sitting MPs are not considered good enough for the Commons, they shouldn’t be sent to the Lords. Because the seats in the upper House are nobody’s bargaining chips. Because if the House of Lords is to continue to make a meaningful contribution to political life, and balance the power of the Commons, it cannot be filled with Blair’s cronies or his castoffs.

With the Conservatives in desperate need of the same sort of makeover as Labour did in the 90's only makes the case for Lords reform even more pressing to outlaw this practice once and for all.


edmund said...

I'm not sure "leadership favourities" is precisely the dictionary definition of " brightest stars" good analysis though