And, among the seniles, they have many eminent minds for this work, including razor-sharp judges appointed as independents. As a result—and even after stuffing the chamber with their grateful supporters—the Labour governments lost around 500 votes in the Lords, typically on issues pertaining to civil liberties, of which the peers have come to consider themselves custodians.So close, yet so far.
Such defeats are manageable; the Lords cannot kill legislation, but at most delay it for a year. Nonetheless, this dissent proved sufficient to stop Labour extending detention without charge to 42 days and ending trial by jury in some cases, among other foiled draconian measures. Under the recently deceased Tory-led coalition, the Lords were less obstructive, reflecting the government’s less authoritarian programme, as well as the vast majority it got from the combined weight of Tory and Liberal Democrat peers. But, unhappily for David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, this is about to change. Having won a majority in the Commons, the Tories have been reduced to a minority in the Lords. And there is much in their legislative programme, including the promised “in-out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and a putative new British bill of rights, that many peers dislike.
Anxious Tories seek comfort in the so-called Salisbury convention, by which the Lords refrains from opposing the government on its manifesto commitments. Yet the Lib Dems, obliterated in the Commons and bitterly resentful of their Tory assassins, are minded to disregard it. “People speak quite glibly about the Salisbury convention,” says Lord Wallace, a former Lib Dem minister who now leads the party’s 102 peers. “But it’s outlived its relevancy. It was established in a completely different world.” It seems the Lib Dems view their outsized representation in the Lords as a means to maintain their prominence, replenish their frontbench, and push a liberal agenda. “We’re going to have to do some of the heavy lifting,” Lord Wallace admits.
...An overcrowded, flatulent, but increasingly effective House of Lords—that is not such a bad deal. All the same, it is unsatisfactory, and will become more so. The signs are that the Lords will continue to grow more activist, further straining the limits of its dubious mandate. The assembly needs more democracy. More pressingly, it also needs a cull.
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