Opinion

Power without accountability: Boris Johnson and the House of Lords

Cronyism. Sleaze. Nepotism. Welcome to our Upper Chamber of Parliament: the opaque institution which we have a vague understanding of, filled with ‘distinguished’ folks draped in ceremonial robes. Here you’ll find endless tea breaks, casual attendance and an average age of 70; perfectly acceptable for a retirement club but certainly not from supposed Parliamentarians. The epitome of the ‘old boys network’ should not be at the heart of our democracy, and Johnson’s nominations, quietly announced last week, are yet another illustration of the historic reluctance to reform the Lords into a chamber representing the British people, not the remnants of its aristocracy.

Characterised as the last bastion of the aristocratic Kingdom, the Conservatives’ menial statements about reform are unsurprising. They are reluctant to actively minimise the vast ethnic, geographic or wealth disparities in the chamber. They shy away from appointing based on merit. Transforming the chamber into one confident in their scrutinising power has been repeatedly resisted. Nick Clegg’s 2012 House of Lords Bill, a flagship policy in the coalition agreement, was frustrated by the Tories and would’ve created a mostly elected upper chamber. The party’s 2019 manifesto was committed to ‘addressing the broader aspects of our constitution,’ including ‘the role of the House of Lords.’  Downing Street reiterated their commitment to Theresa May’s pledge of reducing its size to 600 peers – the new total amounts to 830: it is impossible to perceive the announcement as anything other than a bullet point in Johnson’s lengthy list of U-turns.  

The Prime Minister, or Cummings more precisely, created a façade of the Conservatives being the party for working-class Britain, a façade repeatedly shattered merely eight months after the election. It is unclear how a Russian Oligarch, a previous Prime Minister’s spouse and Johnson’s brother are representative of Labour’s left-behind voters he ardently appealed to.  Currently, just 3.6% of Peers are from the West Midlands, yet a staggering 43.65% of Peers call London or the South their home – appeasing his donors is more urgent than creating a representative chamber which the public are less alienated from.

  Johnson is handing out peerages like thank-you cards: our democracy is not a reward to be abused by politicians, nor should one be permitted to buy themselves into it. He demonstrates a disregard for the sanctity of our political institutions being a voice for the people, rather than a place for those who already have a voice and have used it, or their money, to Johnson’s liking. Number 10 stated the 36 nominations were given to those ‘in recognition of their contribution to society,’ which Brexiteers, Boris sycophants and old Beefy have clearly accomplished.  How they will contribute towards public service to ‘ensure the Lords has appropriate expertise’ – scrutinising their dear pal Boris’ policy decisions –  will be intriguing. Like the Commons, the Lords is a chamber for the people; the balance of power must be shifted accordingly, ensuring appointments are in the public’s interests.

The taxpayer pays up to £323 per day for a Peer’s attendance, a tax-free sum, yet the daily state pension rate is £5.65, a taxable sum. Such a sum available to Peers, whose accountability is placed beyond the electorate’s reach, should no longer be justifiable, considering their individual wealth and avenues of income. Between April 2019 and February 2020, the Lords claimed £14.3m in attendance allowances, excluding travel expenses. Adding another 36 members to an unnecessarily inflated chamber exacerbates the financial burden on taxpayers, whilst local councils are forced to make cuts from a budget already restricted by the government. 

Since Blair’s expulsion of all but 92 hereditary peers, the Lords have felt more legitimised in their titles. Disdain towards last week’s announcement illustrates how such confidence is delusional, disconnected from public sentiments. Peers are trapped in a time warp, repulsed at the idea of relocating up North, reluctant to reduce their expenses, with an atrociously low attendance rate and power without accountability.  

The uncodified nature of our constitution means that the Lords has a vital role in the theatrics of British politics and scrutinising of government power. Instead, Johnson has enlarged the crony’s club, rather than delivering on manifesto commitments making it fit for purpose. The Lords is an archaic relic; progressive reform is long overdue, or else it risks abolition altogether.