Naked Politics Blogger
Back in May in the aftermath of the Conservative victory at the general election some predicted that the big fight over the coming years would not be between the government and opposition in the House of Commons but rather between the Commons and the Lords, a prediction that is now appearing more and more pertinent by the day.
On the evening of 26th October, the House of Lords voted down the government’s plans to cut working tax credits. This is significant because it is the first time in over a century that the Lords have prevented the passage of a bill relating to finance. Of course, the fact that members of the Lords are unelected raises some serious constitutional questions. When is it right for the unelected upper chamber to defy the elected lower chamber? Would the government be justified in packing the Lords with more Conservative peers in order to make it more representative of the Commons? Should the Lords be abolished altogether?
At this point, it is important to point out that the Lords have not actually killed the tax credit cuts completely, merely forced the Chancellor into concessions. The tax credit cuts are still likely to happen albeit at a slower pace. However, this means that the original saving of nearly £5bn as a result of the cuts will be lessened. The main issue is thus: the current government was elected primarily on a mandate of deficit reduction and cuts to welfare spending. In halting the passage of this bill, the Lords have indirectly undermined the will of the British electorate. A counter-argument to this would be that the Conservatives only achieved a minority of the vote yet still managed to win a majority due to the electoral system but at the end of the day, we must deal with the facts as they are and not how some might wish them to be.
The House of Lords plays an important part in the functioning of British democracy. Unlike the Commons, it is a deliberative body with more expertise but less actual power than the Commons. Despite its recent undermining of the elected Commons, there are still some strong arguments in favour of keeping the Lords unelected, provided there are reforms (less political appointees for example). However, an emboldened Lords more willing to engage in legislative activism could soon find itself sowing the seeds of its own demise, with a review into the powers of the Lords recently announced in the wake of the tax credits vote.
The supreme irony here is that some of the biggest supporters of the Lords over tax credits are those who have been most vocal in their opposition in the past to the unelected chamber. The Lib Dems in particular are guilty of this, presumably because the party holds virtually no influence in the Commons with their 8 MPs but can exert significant pressure in the Lords where they have over 100 peers. The left may cheer this latest intervention, but what about the future? It sets a precedent and of course there is no guarantee that the Lords will have an in-built Labour/Lib Dem majority forever. Indeed, until relatively recently the Lords had an in-built Conservative majority. If 20 years down the line the Lords has a Conservative majority once more, will we simply see a reverse of the current situation? Regardless of one’s own party affiliation, the choice between a deliberative but relatively weak Lords and an emboldened, more partisan Lords should be very easy to make.
The debate surrounding the tax credit cuts has understandably been heated – many people are opposed to the cuts as they stand, including even a small number of Conservative MPs. On the other hand, the decision to go through with them was taken by the country’s elected representatives and the cuts are nowhere near as extreme as some are making out – it is important to remember that they were only introduced less than 20 years ago under the last Labour government. The central issue here however is that in killing the passage of this bill, the Lords have overridden the democratic will of the Commons on a crucial issue of finance. It is up to the electorate to judge the government on these matters, not unelected peers.