Photo by UK Parliament
Europe / UK

The House of Lords Strikes Back

The Conservative Party of the United Kingdom had been quite unclear as to what their approach to tax credits would be during the elections season. When October came, the newly elected Conservative government proposed significant cuts to tax credits that would cost working class families thousands of pounds per year. These cuts were paired with an increase in the minimum wage to about nine pounds per hour—higher than even Labour had proposed. Nonetheless, Labour protested the cuts, arguing that minimum wage workers would still be worse off after the cuts. The Conservatives had no reason to be concerned, though—with a majority in the House of commons, victory was assured, unless some bizarre defections occurred. What they didn’t predict was that the other house of the British Legislature would intervene: the House of Lords.

The Lords are a peculiar body in modern politics. With over 800 members, they are the largest national legislative body in the world, next to China’s National People’s Congress. Their membership is mostly appointed by the main parties, with each party entitled to seats based on their electoral success. Members are appointed for life, however, so the body’s membership does not necessarily represent the elected House of Commons. Presently, the House of Lords is disproportionally controlled by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In addition, the body carries several other archaic curiosities: Although no new hereditary peerages are given, roughly 100 members are aristocrats who hold their positions by virtue of being hereditary lords. A further few dozen are clerics of the Church of England. The Lords are often the target of liberal reformers, and these last two groups provide easy targets.

Over the years, the Lords have lost most of their power. Their ability to block legislation has been limited in a variety of ways, some of which are more clearly spelled out than others. The Conservatives have argued that the Lords do not have the right to block budget changes, but they have blocked these tax credit cuts nonetheless—arguing that the change is a statutory instrument and thus within their purview. Needless to say, the rules are not quite clear.

Although the loudest critics of the House of Lords have generally been affiliated with the left-leaning parties, such as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party, some murmurs are now arising from the Conservative party. The House of Lords represent the most obscure and confused part of British Constitutional law, and many have sought to reform and replace the body, or abolish it entirely. Disagreement over the nature of reform has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to such efforts.
The Lords rarely intervene in legislative matters. They are not seen as particularly legitimate, from a democratic perspective. The Conservatives argue that the Lords have not been involved in this way for over a hundred years. Whatever the legality of the Lords’ move, it is always peculiar when this pre-modern aspect of British Government reminds the elected government that it exists, and technically still has power.