Lasting impressions

Lordsdispatchbox4x3.jpgJessica Levy on the political – and personal – lessons learnt from three and half years in the Lords

A few weeks ago, a well-respected broadcast journalist penned a newspaper article deriding how little it is possible to achieve in the House of Lords. Such disdain for the ‘powerlessness’ of the Upper House matches the assumptions of many. But as I move on from almost three and a half years working there, my reflections on the reality contrast starkly with this rather lazy portrayal. It has also become clear to me that living and breathing daily life on Parliament’s ‘second front’ has changed my own initial perceptions.

In the past week alone, the weight of Labour and Crossbench arguments has forced the government to perform two legislative u-turns and also offer a range of concessions. It has also delivered the Coalition’s 82nd Lords defeat of the Parliament, and illustrated why the worth of the Upper House cannot easily be scoffed at.

Ministerial capitulation on standardised cigarette packaging (following a cross-party amendment to the Children and Families Bill), and the capping of payday lending and a climbdown on the leverage ratio (both to stave of certain defeats in the Banking Reform Bill), are testament to what the House can achieve. Not to mention the carrying of our amendment calling for professional standards in banking, with annual licensing of those working in financial services. All of this legislation has been through the Commons with the government dismissing out of hand the merits of the issues which they have now been moved to accept.

These examples might simply point to the accepted role of the Lords as a revising Chamber. Indeed, our unwritten constitution tells us that it is the place where the government should be made to think again. This ‘thinking again’ perhaps owes itself traditionally to the force of the Upper House’s expert scrutiny – an important value added but, in my judgement, not the main driver. Or more likely the fact that since the 1999 eviction of most hereditary Peers, the government has not had a Lords majority and so progress necessitates compromise and adherence to arguments.

But the same cannot be said of the post-2010 Second Chamber. In fact, in the current circumstances of Coalition government, with the ongoing appointment of scores of new Conservative and LibDems Peers, it is even more remarkable that the Lords has proved of late to be such a successful check on government. 

A lot can be achieved through alliance building. The presence of the Crossbenchers moderates the raw party politics of the arguments, but they are, nonetheless, surprisingly political. Capturing the support of this group of ‘floating voters’ is a disciplined exercise – as well as daily training for the many on our side who continue to be active on the doorstep.

And this cautious, at times, admittedly, tediously slow, approach to things does pay dividends. Proud achievements include establishing in law the principle of parity of esteem between mental and physical health, the preservation of the Office of the Chief Coroner, the regulation of letting agents, creating a new offence of stalking, forcing the government to the negotiating table on Leveson, and putting an end to Tory plans to gerrymander the number of Westminster seats by defeating the planned boundary changes.  All would have been unimaginable without action in the House of Lords.

Clearly, it is more than its mere existence that enables me to draw these conclusions. The operation that Labour has built from scratch in Opposition in the Upper House has been effective, professional, and rightly praised.  Whilst at times arcane Lords’ procedures frustrate things – topicality for instance – clever use of the system reaps just reward, and an expert communications operation has allowed us to sell our message, and promote the values of the Labour Party through our wins and activities.

I think we’ve been both a good Opposition, and a smart Opposition – and a loyal message carrier for our Party against the misguided, unfair actions of an out of touch government.  I’m proud to have been a part of it, and I’m pleased too that I’ve altered my own first impressions.

Jessica Levy was until recently Senior Legislative and Political Adviser in Labour’s team in the House of Lords 

Published 2nd December 2013

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