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.