Angela Smith tells the government to ‘grow up’
A Labour In campaign placard peeks out from behind the fireplace. On the mantelpiece sits a photograph with a young Barack Obama. The room is dotted with reminders of painful recent defeats for progressives. And yet it is here, in the office of Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, where some of our greatest victories over the past two years have been plotted.
While many have bemoaned the lack of a strong opposition in the Commons, the government has found life much tougher in the upper chamber, having been forced to think again on vital issues such as tax credits, the trade union bill and housing. Peers began to be such a thorn in the side of David Cameron following the 2015 election that an enraged George Osborne threatened to curb their powers. That is in no small way thanks to Baroness Smith.
‘We’ve never seen so many government members of parliament squealing they want to have 600 or 1,000 extra peers, or they want to abolish the House of Lords,’ she says, half-amused, half-exasperated. ‘They wanted to suspend us on one occasion. We could be quite flattered by that’. However, she refuses to take much credit: ‘We’ve not done any more than any other opposition’s ever done.’
Instead, she claims it is more a reflection on the Conservatives themselves. ‘This government more than any other, has not liked challenge, or scrutiny, or dissent,’ Smith says. It reveals a refusal on their part to accept the function of having two chambers. ‘This is a government that thinks it gets it right first time every time … that seems to want to forget history and say, “Oh, you disagree with this. That’s terrible”.’
Luckily, her colleagues take their role seriously: ‘The House of Lords sees itself in some way … as the custodian of the constitution.’
During Cameron’s time as prime minister, he packed the Lords with hundreds of new peers – many of them Liberal Democrats, one cause of the Tories’ current problem. ‘If all we ever wanted to do was give them a bloody nose and win a vote, we could have done it, actually, every day. But you recognise your role as the second chamber. You pick and choose what you fight on, and you try and persuade.
‘I think the biggest success we have had is when we’ve been able to, through advocacy, say to the government, “We think you could do this better,” or “We think you’re wrong on this”, and the government has either conceded the point or made a u-turn.’ It is still early days for the new prime minister, but her attempts to circumvent parliament on article 50 may not bode well. ‘We’ve yet to see about Theresa May and how she responds, really. David Cameron’s attitude to scrutiny and challenge was: “How dare they? I’m the prime minister. I must be right”.’
Smith characterises that approach as childish, and says that when the Lords initially rejects legislation, ‘the government’s got to be a bit more adult, grow up, and fix it’. For her, that role is clear. She is not in politics to frustrate, and nor are other Labour peers: ‘The Lords is there to hold the government to account, not to ransom,’ she says. ‘What the Lords will be looking for is something from the government that says there is a process here that will engage parliament,’ she says.
Rather than be cowed by threats, Smith is determined that the Lords needs a greater role in examining the government’s moves following article 50. Given the scope of the task, she is expecting ‘thousands of statutory instruments’ to follow from the great reform bill and is already speaking to officials about what infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure ‘a full parliamentary process’.
‘It will need more resources … how we manage it as an opposition, looking at what the government is going to do, it seems to me it’s like 24/7 work. We will meet that challenge. We will do it but it isn’t going to be easy.’
Neither does Smith fear the potential vilification from elements of the press who are aghast at any efforts to introduce a constitutional process into Brexit. One does not have to stretch the imagination to see how the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the people’ splash, picturing high court judges, could be repurposed for opposition peers.
‘Coming from a council house in Basildon, I’ve never felt particularly part of the elite,’ says Smith, who represented her hometown for 13 years following Labour’s landslide in 1997. Partly, this seems down to the fact she continues to actively reach out to voters through her continued party activism. ‘You go back to my old seat, you knock on a few doors, and people don’t think we’re talking to them. Even fewer think we’re listening to them.’
Her conclusion, that ‘the conversation really has to be one where we listen more’, might explain her success as opposition leader in the Lords.
The government defeats have not gone without notice. ‘I know Jeremy [Corbyn] cited them for how important they were during his re-election campaign’, she points out. Getting a longstanding advocate of extra-parliamentary activism to admire the success of Westminster chicanery may be her most impressive victory yet. Keeping May’s feet to the fire on Brexit should be easy after that.
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