Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:01 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour 2:01 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I welcome the phrase, "It is better to be right than to be rushed", which guides what I want to say in this important debate. Since 6 May, whenever David Cameron or Nick Clegg has spoken, it has always been in the national interest, never in the interests of the Conservative Party or of the Liberal Democrats. They have tried to give the impression that what was in the interests of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was in the national interest and that any party with a different view was not speaking or proposing actions in the national interest. I do not intend to leave questions hanging in the air when I sit down because I need to give a lot more thought to the generality of constitutional change, but I speak with experience, having been the opposition Chief Whip between 1990 and 1997. I was also in the Whips' Office in the Commons on 31 March 1979 when Labour went down by one vote. Immediately the Prime Minister went to the country to ask for an endorsement.

The arguments that we have heard all have merit, but I think that the coalition parties are so determined-or so frightened of each other-that they want to fix the parliamentary arithmetic so that whatever happens they are guaranteed to remain in office. I give one or two figures. You do not have to look into a crystal ball to recognise what the Conservative Party has done in the past. Given that I was the Chief Whip, I am perhaps more a figures man than a policy man, but the House will be interested to hear about some figures that pertained when Labour was in power between 1974 and 1979. In 1975-6, there were 146 Divisions, of which the Government of the day lost 126. Of course, you might say that that was because rotten policies were involved. However, in 1981-2, there was the same number of Divisions, 146, but the Government lost only seven of them. You can stretch the imagination and say that that was the luck of the draw and that different policies were involved, but we know that the figures are the product of the composition of the House at the time.

In 1988-9, there were 189 Divisions, of which the Government lost 12. I am grateful to the Library for having provided me with these figures. In 2002-3, there were 226 Divisions, of which the Labour Government lost 68. In 2005-6, there were 192 Divisions, of which the Government lost 62. Even in the Session that has just ended, there were 43 Divisions, of which the Government lost 14. By and large, the previous Government won two Divisions and lost one. Those figures are remarkable.

As regards the composition of the House, when I ceased to be the Chief Whip in 1997, there were 116 Labour Peers and 477 Conservative Peers. You might say that it should not be like that if we claim to be part of a democratic process. In 1991-2, there were 115 Labour Peers and 451 Conservative Peers. That again indicates not just the size of the disparity but its consistency. I am not privy to any information other than that which I read and listen to, but if a case is being made for doing something about numbers, why does one need more Members-unless it is for a political fix-when the present composition of the House guarantees the coalition Government their say?

In 1998-9-just before the Lords Bill-there were 1,210 Members of this House, 484 of whom took the Conservative Whip and 193 of whom were Labour. Tony Blair and the Labour Government said that that disparity had to be corrected and it was. They increased the number of Labour Peers from 116 in 1996 to 201 in 1999. I invite noble Lords to ask for the relevant papers, but rough parity was achieved. My noble friend Lord Grocott made an interesting point in that regard. There was an unwritten understanding that what one needed was parity, particularly between the Conservative and Labour Benches. We now have something like parity, around the 200 mark. However, there were 200 Labour Members when there was a Labour Government and a House of 700 Members. The then Government had 500 potential opponents. We never tried to increase our number above about 200 and we know of the various changes that brought more people on to the Cross Benches.

We need to be careful when we look at these changes. If we are honest-I accept that we are honest politically-we must accept that we are faced with a naked attempt not only to bolster those in office but to try to ensure that they are never driven out of office again. As far as I am concerned, the Conservative and Liberal coalition Government need to be very careful before they overstep the mark and are seen to be cynically manipulating the constitution.