Don’t forget the House of Lords
In all the talk of hung Parliaments and possible Commons arithmetic, the House of Lords has been rather neglected. Yet, baring a small number of dissolution honours, we already know what the makeup of the Lords will be the day after the general election. It’ll be hung with either Labour or the Tories heavily dependent on Liberal Democrat peers to get legislation through.
Currently there are 783 peers of whom 224 are Conservative, 215 Labour and 103 Liberal Democrat. There are just 3 Ukip, 1 Green, 2 Plaid and no SNP. Turnout in House of Lords votes is rarely anywhere near a full 783, so in practice a nominal strength of 300+ peers, including the high turnout Lib Dems, has been enough for the current government to get its business through reliably except in cases of major revolt within its own ranks.
Yet any combination of parties which excludes the Liberal Democrats – barring a German-style Grand Coalition – doesn’t get anywhere close to that. Talks of deals with Ukip, the SNP or Northern Ireland parties (only 8 between them) doesn’t help in the Lords.
In the past, a single party majority government has been able to rely on the Lords deferring to the result of a general election and not being too obstructive (with the threat of Lords reform also sometimes hanging in the background). But a minority government in the Commons, and so soon after Lords reform has to be abandoned? The threat of reform will seem weak and the democratic legitimacy argument will be hobbled.
Moreover, in the past governments have created large numbers of new peers to shift the makeup of the Lords towards the outcome of the previous election. With the building physically reaching its limits and only a minority government mandate to stuff the Lords, that too is rather less of a power to get legislation through than in the past.
So unless a deal is done that ropes in Liberal Democrat peers to regularly vote day after day for the government, expect a very rough ride for any new government in the Lords – especially as some Lib Dem peers will be only too happy to push Lords procedure to breaking point in order to reinvigorate demands for its reform.
All the more so as it’s far from clear how far the Salisbury Convention about the Lords not blocking manifesto policies of the government applies when a government doesn’t have a Commons majority – especially when both Labour and the Tories have had less, rather than more, detail in their manifestos on many key issues (including Parliamentary boundaries).