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Not the usual suspects, after all

The May referendum on the Alternative Vote is now the stuff of political history. The futility of the referendum campaign has, however, overshadowed the epic political battle which went on to get the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies bill onto the statute book in the first place.  In the House of Lords this involved the longest Committee stage for 40 years, as Labour peers participated in a mammoth filibuster.  This led some members of the press to declare Labour’s behaviour ‘dangerous’, accusing Labour peers of turning the Lords into a ‘bear pit of flying insults and political dirty tricks.’

In reality the debate was rather more subdued and dull than this description would suggest but it still demonstrated just how easily the informal conventions and rules of the House of Lords could be broken: All night sittings, and camp beds in the corridors, all horrified the more genteel who considered the tactics to be ‘bringing the house into disrepute’.

The press made two key claims about the filibuster: That it was motivated by a highly partisan desire to keep Labour’s advantage within the electoral system and that it was carried out by ex-whips, ex-MP’s and ‘Labour heavies’. We cannot judge the validity of the first claim (though Labour peers would deny it), but we can look at the latter accusation. Was the filibuster the work of the usual suspects who brought Commons dirty tricks into the more refined Lords or was it a more complex group who led the charge?

Based around examining every contribution to the debate – a total of 397 speeches it soon becomes clear that the filibuster was built around two distinct groups of peers: a core of eleven Labour peers who spoke on almost every day of the debate and some 65 other Labour peers who spoke at least once. The ‘core’ eleven peers spoke for almost the same amount of time as the other 65 peers together, and on eight more days (covering an average of eighteen Hansard columns more).

These eleven core peers who made the filibuster possible; without them it would have collapsed.  And when we examine the ‘core’ group we can see that it actually contains a far more varied set of peers than the press implied: Lord Falconer, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Howarth, Lord McAvoy, Lord Grocott, Lord Bach, Lord Lipsey, Lord Rooker, Lord Soley, Lord Faulkes and Baroness Hayter.

The most obvious characteristic of these peers is that, with the exception of Baroness Hayter, they are all men.  But this aside, there is very little that unifies them. Only three could be described as ‘Labour heavies’ in that they had served as either government whips or in the cabinet: Lord Falconer, Lord McAvoy and Lord Grocottand it is probably because of this paucity of ‘usual suspects’ that the Daily Telegraph chose the identify Lord McAvoy as being the leader of the filibuster despite him speaking for less time than six other peers. Six of the group were formerly MPs but of these only McAvoy had been newly ennobled. So the ‘cadre of battle hardened, newly ennobled, former MPs’ was nothing of the sort; most had been active peers in the Lords for five or more years, almost half had never been MPs (and those that had been MP’s where more likely to have been backbenchers than frontbenchers).

Thus we can see that the press hysteria about Parliamentary dirty tricks led by the usual suspects of whips and heavies for partisan gain was ill-founded. Instead we find that the filibuster was initiated and carried out by a genuinely concerned group of Lords who intended to scrutinise a highly controversial bill intensely assisted by a trio of ex-whips and ministers intent on trouble. For this majority their behaviour during the committee stage of the bill was not an example of Parliamentary abuse but instead of carrying out their key scrutinising role thoroughly and effectively.

James Austin graduated in 2011 from the School of Politics and International Relations.  This post is based on some of his final year research.

Published inBritish Politics


  1. Daniel Cooper (@DanCooperNotts) Daniel Cooper (@DanCooperNotts)

    This was very interesting and more original in my opinion than many ‘real’ academic articles that end up in middling academic journals. The research into the backgrounds of the Lords involved in the filibuster certainly altered my pre-conception that they were all newcomers but I would disagree that the conclusion (that ‘the filibuster was initiated and carried out by a genuinely concerned group of Lords….) necessarily follows.

    If Labour Lords were genuinely concerned about the scrutiny of the bill why were the majority of amendments not put to a vote? Why talk for three hours only to withdraw an amendment even if arithmetic is against you? More generally, given that some of the filibustering was beyond parody (references to prime numbers, Charles Dickens, the silting of the River Ouse being some of my favourites!) the only conclusion that I can draw is that they were trying to prevent boundary changes being enacted before 2015 rather than engaging in any sensible scrutiny.

    For me the PVSCB says much about how the coalition has impacted on the Lords. With the Con/LD’s now having a big voting block scrutiny is difficult unless there is a big turnout of Crossbenchers to help Labour. Maybe it also has something to do with the coalition’s plans for House of Lords reform – the upper chamber flexing its muscles prior to this? Or even something to do with way in which the Salisbury convention doesn’t really work when manifestos become a negotiating document rather than a legislative programme?

    Given the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and the use of ‘programming’ the Lords really could really played an effective role in scrutinizing this bill but for me it was found lacking.

  2. An excellent piece and a very useful and timely bit of research. James – did you also calculate what proportion of the amendments to the Bill were tabled by the core group of 11? I would assume it was very high and would reinforce the sense of a small number of quite expert Peers scrutinising the legislation closely. The rambling speeches from the ‘supporting cast’ were also very much a feature of the debate, for sure. But they were really a secondary characteristic of the debate, much of which was highly technical and very much focussed on the contents of the Bill. Another telling feature was the lack of response, or even silence, from the government benches in response to these often highly technical and well argued amendments. This added to the pressure on Labour Peers to keep talking.

    • James Austin James Austin

      Hi Stuart,

      I didn’t look into that but I should have done. I’m currently expanding the peice and doing a bit more work ino it so I’ll have a look and get back to you (might be a few weeks though.) However from memory Lord Falconer, Lord Campbell Savours and Lord Lipsey amended the most while only a single amendment was suggested by coalition peers (IIRC) from Lord Lawson.

      The rambling speeches where really only a feature on the middle three nights on the bill which took up over 40 hours of debate (including a 20 hour session). Other than that it was actually very technical and exact. One thing I noticed from reading media reports on it was the amount which was spoken about Labour heavyweights like Lord Kinnock, Prescott and so forth who spoke little rather than what was actually going on.

  3. There some very interesting research in this, but I think it’s rather undermined by the huge leap in the last paragraph which talks with absolute certainty as to the motives of the Labour peers.

    Unless there’s other research not mentioned (e.g. into what they did and said in the Lords under the last Labour government in similar situations), the proceeding thoughtful research doesn’t really substantiate the conclusions drawn from it.

    • James Austin James Austin

      Theres a bit of research into it-mainly on the peers background, the fact that most of them had ‘previous’ on constitutional bills and there own speeches.

  4. David Boothroyd David Boothroyd

    Can it be pointed out that Lord Rooker is not a Labour peer? He was, true, a Labour MP and a minister, but after leaving the government he abandoned the Labour whip in 2009 on being appointed chair of the Food Standards Agency.

    I think Stuart Wilks-Heeg makes a very important point. There was little in the way of an intelligent response from the Government to the concerns from the Labour peers. It was largely assumed from the outset that their opinions must be actuated by mere party political considerations, and therefore the Government never really considered that it might be worth listening and compromising.

    Unfortunately that meant that the eventual resolution was a poor one – rejecting the reasonable extension of electorate tolerances to 7.5%, but accepting the public hearings – which I fear are likely to be utterly chaotic. When these boundaries are eventually announced I expect some of them will be ludicrous.

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