Last week the identities of 30 new peers were announced, soon to take up their seats on the red benches of the House of Lords. Among them were anti-racism campaigner Doreen Lawrence, former Met policeman and perennial mayoral also-ran Brian Paddick, and the journalist and political egghead Danny Finkelstein. With Paddick and Finkelstein both having sought elected office unsuccessfully in the past, the announcement was a heartening reminder that in Britain a thing as trivial as democratic consent need not be a barrier to a fruitful career in politics.
Perhaps I am being a little unfair. Paddick, as a former high-powered police officer, will no doubt be able to put this specialist knowledge to good use in the second chamber. His experience as an openly gay man rising through the ranks of an institution which was in the past (and perhaps still is) less than welcoming to homosexuals, will also add a valuable new perspective and voice to parliament. The same goes for Doreen Lawrence – who better to give voice to the minorities in this country who feel bullied and marginalised, than a seasoned campaigner with personal experience of the full horrors of institutional racism? As for Danny Finkelstein, though he belongs to a different party to me, I have always found him an insightful and sensible commentator.
What is most disturbing about the new cohort of peers is the depressingly predictable roll call of party donors. Sir Anthony Bamford, boss of JCB, has donated nearly £2.5m to the Conservatives since 2002; new peer Sir William Haughley has given £1.3m to Labour since 2003; and taking the Lib Dem whip is the Ministry of Sound owner James Palumbo, who has gifted £650,000 to his party since 2011.
The three parties of course “totally refute” allegations that donors are rewarded with peerages. A Tory source claimed for example that Sir Anthony’s ennoblement reflected his status as a “leading industrialist who has made a massive contribution to British business”. And therein lies the essential opacity of our political honours system: if you have enough wealth to splurge cash on a political party, chances are you have achieved something outside of politics which can plausibly be claimed to merit a peerage. So long as there is not an explicit, written quid pro quo negotiated between the party and the donor, such nominations can in this way pass muster with the House of Lords appointments commission, even if rewarding a donor was a factor in the internal thought process of the party leader who nominated them. That a seat in the “Mother of all Parliaments” can be bought for the right price is one of the elephants in the room of British politics.
The continuing passage of party donors into the Lords is however only one of the more striking examples of the wider parlous state of affairs prevailing in the second chamber. Whenever the Lords appears in the news we are reminded of the same extraordinary and embarrassing snippets of political trivia: the 26 Church of England bishops steadfastly guarding your Christian interests in the Lords (whether you’re Christian or not); the 92 hereditary peers still hanging around; the list of fraudsters and convicted criminals warming the red benches (who we don’t have the power to kick out); how, with 836 members (and with no sign of growth abating), the Lords is the second largest legislature in the world after the Chinese politburo.
The House of Lords should not be celebrated as a quaint monument to this country’s long and gloriously messy history: it is one half of the legislature which hands down the laws which regulate our lives. The British people deserve better than this archaic and undemocratic institution, where money still talks to loud. And if anything it is Labour which has the greatest cause to feel ashamed about the lack of progress: when reform was last up for grabs in 2012, they preferred to foment discord in the coalition rather than throw their support behind the Government’s bill. At least the Tory backbenchers who torpedoed that bill believed what they were doing was right: Labour sacrificed principle and the chance to drag the Lords into the twenty first century in favour of a tactical play which most of us have long since forgotten about.