A former politics lecturer has hit the headlines for allegedly wearing an orange bra, smoking a cigarette, snorting powder from a woman’s breasts and making rude comments about the prime minister. Bizarrely, this is threatening to cause a constitutional upheaval. John Buttifant Sewel’s behaviour has attracted so much attention because he was a member of the House of Lords, although he has now resigned.
The furore has once again stirred up a clamour for House of Lords reform. However, Lord Sewel’s behaviour has not raised any issue of great constitutional importance. The situation was very different in 1909, when the Conservative-dominated House of Lords blocked the Liberal government’s budget. This led to the 1911 Parliament Act, which curtailed the power of the House of Lords and prevented it obstructing money bills.
At this stage, a peer could only leave the House by dying or could be temporarily excluded through bankruptcy or imprisonment. An act of Parliament could also be brought in specifically to remove an errant lord, as was the case in 1917 with two lords who had supported the King’s enemies.
There are now many more ways to leave the Lords. In 1963 the Peerage Act allowed hereditary peers to disclaim their peerages for their own lifetime, but to enable their sons to resume the title and membership of the House of Lords. The first person to take advantage of the reforms was Labour MP Tony Benn, who had inherited a peerage on the death of his father, former Labour cabinet minister, the first Viscount Stansgate.
In 1999 Tony Blair’s government started a, still-unfinished, reform process by which most of the hereditary peers left the Lords. However, 92 places were reserved for hereditary peers (42 of them for the Conservatives), elected by their own party group. When Lord Ferrers died, the ensuing by-election in 2013 attracted a selection of 27 Conservative candidates for the 48 voters to choose from. Politicians are always arguing for more choice. They also tend to regard a high turnout at elections as a good thing and by this measure the 2003 Lords by-election following the death of Labour perr, Lord Milner was exemplary. All three eligible hereditary peers turned out to vote - 100% turnout.
The House of Lords Reform Act of 2014 allowed peers to retire or resign, as Lord Sewel has done. There is still no compulsion to retire at any set age or length of service. Lord Carrington, aged 96, is still a member of the House of Lords after 74 years’ service.
Had Lord Sewel not resigned, the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015 allowing peers to suspend or expel members could have been employed.
Over the last century or so the volume of House of Lords reforms has increased, but the impact of each successive piece of legislation has been diminishing. The fact that a bra-wearing, powder-snorting incident involving one peer has triggered a new debate on further reforms suggests that the appetite for change is much greater than the level of agreement about what should be on the menu.
The expenses scandal of 2009 demonstrated that public opinion can be raised to boiling point over parliamentary misbehaviour, but little distinction was made in the media between serious fraud and accidental claims for single portions of dog food. Duck islands, dog food, orange bras and trouser presses make for better headlines than issues such as human rights or climate change.
In a parliamentary ‘coat-of-arms race’ David Cameron has managed to play the situation to his advantage. Citing his failure to pass reforms of the Lords to create a mainly-elected chamber during his coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, he has decided not to introduce any new legislation, but to even up representation among the parties in the second chamber by creating new Conservative peers.
In contrast to the situation in 1909, the Liberal Democrats now have 101 peers but only 8 MPs, while the Conservative Party with an overall majority in the Commons, has fewer life peers than the Labour Party. David Cameron, however, forgot to mention that the 2012 reforms failed when 91 of his own MPs voted against a three-line whip.
So far the Lord Sewel affair has led to the prospect of a further bloating of the House of Lords and a debate on its future, which all the major political parties seem to be content to lead nowhere. Meanwhile the media will be hoping for some more good headlines. For many people though the one fact which is likely to stick in their memory will be the colour of the bra.
An earlier version of this article appeared on the Conversation.