Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A believer still

Easter 1998.  I was on holiday on Islay off the west coast of Scotland with my husband and children. I got a phone call from Downing St. I was asked if I would accept a Peerage if one was offered. Amazed, flattered and bemused, in and amongst the discussion that followed I said I didn’t really believe in the House of Lords.

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I was assured this was a point very much in my favour. Labour needed people who would not go native, I was told, and I could play a part in putting through the reforms of the Lords the new government was determined to get on the statute book.  I said yes, of course, because it was really irresistible. I anticipated the loud (and continuing) hoots of derision and amusement from my Commie Yorkshire family. I believed in the Lords reform agenda. I still do.

Working on those early bits of legislation, most notably the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House, and related issues of privilege like the Right to Roam Act, was hugely satisfying. In 1999 when we enacted the bill abolishing the hereditary peerage, I believed it was only a matter of a year or so before further legislation was introduced to create a different, modern and democratic second chamber.  Twelve years later I am still waiting.

I have not gone native – if that means believing I have a right to be in the Lords because of some sort of uniqueness on my part. I have kept the faith. I have voted for 100 per cent election of the House of Lords at every available opportunity. I have made it clear that I expect at some time to vote for my own abolition and thought I would have done so by now. I welcomed each of the different attempts to bring forward reform and deprecated the inability of the Commons to decide what form the reformed Lords should take.

I supported the National Policy Forum’s repeated confirmation of its commitment to 100 per cent elections. I have also been repeatedly frustrated by successive Labour leaderships’ cowardice vis-a-vis the presence, as of right, of the bishops in the House of Lords.

I have gained a lot of hopefully useful experience in the Lords and I don’t want it to go to waste. I am willing to put myself forward for selection to fight an election to a senate or whatever comes next. The slight problem I have is that if we do not get on with it, I might be too old, or worse!

The House of Lords is a truly wonderful and seductive place to have been for the last 11 years. There are very many exceptional people there, some real superstars in their field, some with enormous experience and accomplishments and many who work very hard indeed. It is a great honour to work alongside them.  I have been hugely privileged to be there and grateful to have had this experience.

However, despite all of the above I have not changed my mind. This is why I will be supporting the next round of proposals to reform the Lords. I think the proposals introduced by Nick Clegg are a good basis for moving forward. There are some areas  where I might have wished for greater certainty – like grasping the nettle of how to reduce the numbers of the current bloated House. Some of us, if not all, have to go!  

I am disappointed, though not surprised, that Nick Clegg has wimped out on the abolition of the bishops. If he has his way we would remain the only legislative body in the world to have clerics in their legislature as of right, except for Iran. Not the kind of company I want to keep.

The right reverends, as with so many of my colleagues in the upper house are great guys who often make insightful, thoughtful and incredibly valuable contributions to our debates, but their presence is really not necessary in parliament. It really does not reflect well on Britain as a modern multi-faith and no-faith nation.

I spend some of my spare time speaking in schools about the work of the House of Lords. It is difficult not to be uncomfortable with and certainly it is impossible to justify the present set up in this day and age. The patronage that has led to most of us being in the Lords is simply indefensible. I have never believed it was a good enough reason to oppose reform solely on the grounds that the nation would therefore lose all the experience, wisdom and talent that resides in the House of Lords. I cannot think of anyone of note in the House of Lords who would not be making an important contribution to civic life in the UK in some way or other. Indeed it was because they already were that they got there.

Most nations find ways of recognising and hearing the talented and the wise, without making them part of their parliaments. Why wouldn’t we? Nor do I think it is beyond our wit to find ways of honouring people for their achievements without imposing on them the burden of becoming a legislator.  

There is a very good reason why we in the UK go all over the world evangelising about the benefits of parliamentary democracy and the freedoms that go with it. We now really need to apply them to ourselves and get one of our houses in order.

Photo: UK Parliament

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Glenys Thornton

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