If you are terrified by the mass of repressive legislation being pushed through by the Conservative party then you may have found a glimmer of hope in the challenge it has faced from our upper chamber, where Labour peers have helped to inflict the highest number of defeats on the government in a single parliamentary session since 1976. At the helm is Baroness Angela Smith, former Labour MP for Basildon turned shadow leader in the House of Lords and leader of Labour’s Lords.
“Just look at the nationality and borders bill. I think it’s hugely significant that we’ve passed more amendments to that bill than any other bill in my time in the Lords and possibly any other bill in our history,” says Smith.
“Normally you want to focus on quite a small number of amendments. And I’m a great one for having a red pen and saying look, the priority has to be these three out of these 20. We struggled on this because there was so much in it that was really offensive. I’ve never known a bill as bad as that for this. It was just horrible,” she says.
It is not hard to see why. As people flee to western Europe from war-torn Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq – and now Ukraine – the legislation will make it even harder to seek asylum in the UK. It also includes provisions for offshore detention centres for refugees and stronger powers to remove British citizenship – an element Smith found ‘particularly offensive’. “You would expect anything that has Priti Patel behind it to be pretty awful. This I think exceeds even the expectations of Priti Patel in how bad it is.”
Still, the government of the day can overturn these defeats in the Lords, and this is something we are already seeing as we approach the ‘wash-up’ period before parliament dissolves. “I have to say for an unelected house, there’s a limit to how much you can insist that the elected house takes what you say,” she says.
According to Smith, our upper chamber does not exist to ‘derail’ government: it is there to ‘make legislation better’. She describes the House of Lords as ‘the chamber of sober second thought’.
“I think one of the strengths of the Lords is that I haven’t got a constituency. I spent 13 years as a constituency MP and was a government minister for most of that time, and the pressures are enormous. But here I focus on legislation.”
And for Smith, legislation at the moment – such as the elections bill and the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill – is ‘hugely controversial’ with ‘far too much crammed in’.
“There’s one debate I was in for the other day where the implications of what they were saying on immigration issues and visas impacts north-south relations in Ireland. And so I thought well that’s OK, because they’ll sort this out, that’s clearly a mistake. But no. They haven’t discussed it with the Irish government or with the Northern Ireland office and it’s typical of how bad the legislation is.”
It was earlier this year that Smith helped orchestrate several defeats to the policing bill which seeks to severely curtail the right to protest. Here, the Lords acted as an effective block against the government which attempted to avoid scrutiny in the Commons by adding amendments at the last minute. “We were able to take things completely out of the bill and they couldn’t put them back in again, they have to be in a separate bill because they introduced them late,” she explains.
“I remember talking to Keir [Starmer] in the morning about that bill. He said: ‘How’s it gonna go?’ and I said: ‘Look, these are hugely controversial issues, but the government is pulling out all the stops to get their people out to defend them. There’s a lot of disquiet about putting things in at the last stage. So there’s quite a few Tory peers who don’t like the process of the government, they don’t like the policy, but they’re on a heavy threeline whip, they’ll be doing a lot of work. So we’re doing our best. There’s key ones I think we’ll win but we obviously can’t win everything’ … And we won everything.”
For Smith, Labour’s opposition to the policing bill is a great example of how it is working effectively. It made a ‘sensible case’ which won support across the house, she says.
But this comes at a cost to peers. “Quite often we’re asking people to stay late. We’ve had nights and nights of three-line whips. You’re talking about people, some of them are older, they have got a distance to travel when they leave, they’re not getting paid very much to do this despite some of the things you see. And they’ve really put themselves out. On the policing bill we’ve had some people come in who have had hospital trips that day and came back straight here from the hospital. That’s a big ask of people. And they’re not here to just win amendments, they want change.”
With defeat after defeat, you might be forgiven for thinking Labour has a majority in the Lords. But this has never been the case. It is the Tories who are – by far – the largest group. How then, is Smith organising? “Do you want my secrets?” she laughs. “It is all based around an issue. We’ll work around the house and with our Commons teams and we work very closely with the leadership team and individual shadow cabinet members around issues. We’ll look at what our priorities are. And we just try and build alliances.”
Yet for Smith, the scale of defeat is not just about Labour being well organised but how ‘rubbish’ the government is at controlling its own party. “They have 258 Conservative peers. The other night they couldn’t get even 100 voting.”
According to Smith, the Tories are ‘pretty demoralised’. “If you’re uncomfortable with the legislation, you’re uncomfortable with your leader, you don’t feel inclined to stay till late. So we’ve been able to use that. But they’re getting a little bit more worried. I think there’ve been instructions from on high because they’ve been losing so many votes,” she says.
Still, Smith reveals that both the scale of defeats and the number of government-sided peers who are staying away have come as a surprise. “I remember one of my colleagues was saying he’d gone for a cup of tea and two Tories sat on the same table as him and they said: ‘Why are we here voting for this?’ and he said: ‘Well, why don’t you go home then?’ They went: ‘Yeah, OK’. And they went home!”
In contrast, the mood amongst Labour peers is ‘pretty good’. “They’re getting increasingly angry with the government. I have to say, on some things now they are pushing for us to do more.”
In the weeks to come, Smith says we can expect to see a challenge from Labour Lords on the elections bill, which is ‘hugely anti-democratic’. Labour is particularly angered by new plans to allow British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years to donate to political parties, and will be pushing back against proposals to reform the Electoral Commission and introduce photo ID – none of which, she says, are in line with Labour’s interests. “We’re having to say to the government, hang on, all bets are off for this one. You’re behaving badly, you’re trying to cram it through and there isn’t time for it.”
Yet Johnson’s government is one that believes it gets ‘everything right first time’, she says. And to someone who has spent 25 years in Westminster, there is something uniquely dangerous about its unwillingness to listen to opposition.
Relations between both chambers were not always like this, Smith explains. She recalls being particularly struck by a recent conversation with an ex-government minister. “He said it’s not like the old days. In the old days we’d say: ‘Let’s talk about it, we’ll have a conversation about it and see if we can amend it in some way’ and as ministers they were able to say: ‘Can I take this away and look at it again?’ but they don’t do that now. They just plough on.”
Smith maintains this attitude – that government can do what it wants – stems from Boris Johnson. “I can’t think of any other prime minister, ones I’ve agreed with or disagreed with, if I look back at Conservative prime ministers in my lifetime like Margaret Thatcher, like John Major, like Theresa May, none of them would have behaved in the way that Boris Johnson has, whether we’re talking about the partygate scandals, whether we’re talking about ignoring the advice of the Holac committee into House of Lords appointments, when we’re talking about whether ministers like Priti Patel have broken the ministerial code, this is a prime minister that defies conventions. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him and that attitude filters down through government.”
Smith refers here to Johnson’s decision to appoint Peter Cruddas to the Lords in defiance of the appointments commission. It was followed by an investigation from OpenDemocracy and the Sunday Times which revealed that Conservative treasurers who donate £3m or more are almost guaranteed a peerage. And now, fresh questions are being raised by the Labour leadership around Johnson’s appointment to the Lords of Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev.
In an attempt to tackle some of the cronyism, Smith has put forward a plan. It includes more transparency around appointments so the public know why people are coming in; a cap on numbers because ‘this is just getting silly’; mechanisms to remove peers who are not meeting expectations; and an end to donations. “The idea that you can make a donation to get a peerage is just deeply shocking. That’s corrupt. It’s totally corrupt. I’d thought we stopped that under Lloyd George,” she says.
“I find it interesting that in all the Labour years when we were looking at House of Lords reform, I served on the committees in the Commons on this, the House of Lords resisted reform. We have a situation now where the House of Lords has produced a document calling for reform, about limited terms, about age limits, and all those kinds of things about a smaller house, and it’s the government that won’t do it.”
That said, Smith admits she does not trust the Tories at all with reform of the House of Lords. “It will only be to do away with opposition, it won’t be in the interest of democracy,” she says.
For Smith, there is a ‘stark contrast’ between the values of Johnson’s government and Starmer’s Labour, which she feels is important in the current climate: “We’ve got Ukraine, we’ve had the pandemic, we’ve got the cost of living crisis. Petrol prices aren’t just going up now. The cost of living crisis isn’t just a problem now because of the pandemic and Ukraine. This is something where consciously government has been taking decisions that are making it harder for working people, the national insurance increase for example, all those things are making it harder”.
She says it is Labour which understands what people are going through. “Labour was talking about energy security before this crisis came along. We were talking about the cost of living before the crisis came along. We were talking about climate change before it came along, and so it just shows that all of the values and things we were saying are more important now than ever before, but they’re not new to us. It’s just the way we are.”
And as one of the longest serving members in the shadow cabinet, Smith feels positive about Labour’s future. “We could walk into Downing Street and government departments tomorrow and be ready to do that job, I’m not sure if I’ve said that for some time. We can say it now. And that should give us the encouragement we need.”
“I got elected in 1997,” she adds. “And in 1992 everyone went ‘we’re gonna win this.’ I was working in Basildon then and thinking, I’m not so sure, it’s not looking so great. And we didn’t. And then come ‘97 we never took our foot off the accelerator at any time, we just kept on and on. I don’t think there were any of us that were fighting seats or our campaigns teams that weren’t exhausted the day after the election.”
“I think that we will work ourselves into the ground between now and the election to win it. And we will recoup the energy by winning and being ready to govern.”
“And I hope that some of the things we do in the Lords can give some hope and encouragement to the people. But it’s not just us in the Lords, it’s us working with our Labour colleagues in the House of Commons and the party as a whole that can do these things together to make a difference.”