The balance in the Upper House has silently trended towards the blues
Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like the House of Lords and as with many things he doesn’t like, he’s gone out of his way to avoid engaging with it. When he was first running for the Labour leadership, he promised that he wouldn’t nominate any new Labour peers. That was understandable for someone who has long opposed the nature of the undemocratic upper House, and for someone who’s always believed in the power of the boycott.
Three years on, he’s not quite kept to that promise. Three new Labour peers have been created since the beginning of 2016 (this is a better starting point than September 2015, when Corbyn was actually elected, as the post-2015GE peers were still being created through the autumn). A fourth, Martha Osamor – race equality campaigner, mother of Shadow cabinet member Kate Osamor, and defender of various Labour members accused of antisemitism – has been nominated but hasn’t yet received her title.
Boycotts, however, have a habit of being self-defeating (especially when only partially carried out, where they lose their moral weight too). Against the three new Labour peers to have entered the House since the beginning of 2016, seven have retired, two lost their place for non-attendance, and sixteen have died: a total loss of 25 Labour members leaving the party down by a net 22, or more than 10% of its strength.
By contrast, while the Conservatives have lost about the same number, 24 new Tory peers have been created on Theresa May’s watch (some of these may be Cameron’s resignation honours; I’ve not checked that closely – the effect and numbers are more important that who proposed them). Add in another one from 2016 before Cameron resigned, plus two other hereditaries elected in by-elections, and the Tories’ numbers in the Lords are up by a net 3 over the same period.
That slight increase also has to be set against a shrinking House elsewhere. Not a single new Lib Dem peer has been created since the beginning of 2016, leaving the Yellows down a net 7 in that time (though we should note that eleven Lib Dem peers were sent up to the Lords in October 2015). Crossbench numbers are also down with a net change of -20 (14 in and some 34 leaving, over half of them making use of the new retirement facility).
What all this means is that Corbyn has chosen to put the government in a better position in the Lords by about 15-20 seats than it would have had, had he pressed for and made use of something much closer to a pro rata entitlement.
Add in the changes elsewhere and the government is probably 30 seats or so better off against the other parties in net terms than it was nearly three years ago.
Of course, the Lords isn’t the Commons. Even after those changes, the Tories still have nothing like a majority, with fewer than a third of the members: 249 out of 791. All the same, if Corbyn continues his near-boycott and if the Lib Dems’ numbers continue to decline in the light of their last two election results (they currently have 17% of party-affiliated peers: more than double their vote shares in 2015 or 2017), then it won’t be long before the Conservatives do have more than half the members who take a whip. At the moment, against the Tories’ 249, there are exactly 300 from other parties (including four from the DUP), plus 215 cross-benchers or unaffiliated.
In terms of critical votes, the Lords isn’t that important. It cannot make or break governments. It cannot veto Budgets. It cannot reverse Brexit. What it can do, however, is substantially alter legislation against a government’s will – and do so in a way that can often be difficult to reverse. By refusing to taint himself with the brush of ermine (except when convenient), Corbyn will undoubtedly hand the government victories in the Lords it wouldn’t have otherwise had.
I wonder though whether he or his advisors are playing a longer game. We know that Corbyn and those around him want an early election, which is possible but unlikely. If it’s later – particularly, if it’s in 2022 – then the attrition of retirement and the great Returning Officer in the sky will likely deplete Labour’s numbers much further. Were they to then win, they’d find themselves heavily outnumbered in a hostile upper House. Never mind that it was their own (in)actions that led to that, it’d still provide a pretext to flood it with True Believers, or to reform it into an elected body (though that’s something that’s always a lot more attractive in opposition than in government), or to abolish it outright.
Before then though, the Tory PMs will find life a little easier up the corridor than they’ve a right to expect. Given the many challenges of the coming months and years, that might only be a slim silver lining – but in an otherwise dull lead sky, any sparkle will be welcomed.