House of Lords stereotypes are painfully easy to conjure. It’s the place where falling asleep mid-debate doesn’t raise eyebrows and aged peers take the stairs because “it’s good for the heart”. It’s where old MPs are ‘kicked upstairs’ and put out to seed. Those plush red carpets, the gilded leaf, the sheer ostentatious magnificence of the Palace of Westminster leave overawed visitors feeling as if they’ve wandered into a museum, not Parliament’s upper House. How could anyone here have anything other than deferential respect for authority?

But those doddery old peers, smiling weakly as they shuffle past in the corridors, aren’t finished just yet. See the glint in their eyes? That’s right, they’re plotting something. Some old habits never die.

The Lords attracted the headlines during the hurly-burly over the coalition’s plans to hold a referendum on 5 May 2011. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was nearly scuppered by Labour filibustering, a tactic led by the new intake of peers, elevated from the Commons. The measures weren’t in the party manifesto, Labour argued. The legislation was really two separate bills. There wasn’t any pre-legislative scrutiny. Combine these gripes with the fact that the coalition had left itself vulnerable to time pressure on a “totemic” bill, and you get what insiders called “the perfect storm”.

George Foulkes, one of the Labour agitators, puts it more simply: “It was somehow symbolic of the way in which the PM and, even more, the deputy PM, wanted to push their plans through and couldn’t care less about Parliament, so we decided to try and thwart it.”

As Lord Speaker, Helene Hayman is as impartial a spectator as it’s possible to get in the Lords. She presided over the growing impasse from the woolsack and watched, appalled, as the possibility grew that the Conservative leader of the House, Thomas Strathclyde, could use a guillotine motion to cut short the debate.

“One of the things that’s very precious is not having timetabling,” she explains. “The possibility of [a guillotine motion] was something I think everyone came back from the brink on.” Both sides, she felt, thought they held the moral high ground. But for now, at least, the crisis appears to have abated. “At least half of the genie is back in the bottle.”

With more major coalition legislation heading to the Lords in the coming months, it seems unlikely that the recent uproar was nothing but a blip. “If we build alliances with crossbenchers, we can still win votes,” Labour’s leader of the opposition, Baroness Royall, says. Legislation on Europe and health reform has the potential for more heavy weather. So much for the doddering, sedate peers keeping themselves to themselves. This lot mean business.

Part of the reason why so many feathers have been ruffled is that over the years the Lords has evolved its own way of making the government sit up and take notice. Being an effective political operator in the Lords is very different from being a Commons MP. The culture is one of dialogue and negotiation – no surprise, really, given the lack of an overall majority by any one party. “We don’t have the same strong-arm approach as the Commons,” Baroness Royall says. William Wallace, Foreign Office minister and whip in the Lords, has come to appreciate how essential the softly-softly approach is. “In the Lords, we ask how they’re feeling and how their children are, and whether they could possibly come along this afternoon...”

As the long list of opposition triumphs shows, this doesn’t always work. An ancient story tells of Lord Ferrers being summoned by a cabinet minister to explain a government defeat. “I’m very sorry,” Ferrers is said to have replied. “Too many peers sat through the debate and listened to the argument.”

It’s the free-spiritedness of ‘Lord’ this or ‘Baroness’ that which makes life for a government whip “very interesting, but complicated”. Even former ministers, who normally steer clear of rocking the boat, occasionally use their political nous to full effect. Norman Fowler, the Thatcher government cabinet minister, says ex-ministers have to be “reasonably cautious” in speaking out on departmental issues. That didn’t stop him being behind the largest defeat the coalition has suffered in the Lords so far. He opposed the “rather silly” proposal to split the Isle of Wight into two – and won with a majority of 75. Lord Fowler suggests staying in touch with former ministers might help keep this section of the Lords in check. “Although I wasn’t particularly good at that,” he muses. “And this government isn’t particularly good at it, either”.

The Lords’ select committees have a long-established habit of being a thorn in the government’s side, too. John Roper, in charge of the European affairs committee and its many sub-committees, spends every Monday afternoon going through a pile of 30 European Commission documents, and decides whether they’re of significance. He hands me – rather proudly, I suspect – a wodge of laborious correspondence with ministers that demonstrates the hard work he’s made them do. “Until they can give us satisfactory answers, we say they shouldn’t agree the things in Brussels,” he says. “It’s low-profile, toilsome work, but makes a real difference. The government knows there’s someone watching them.”

If any one group has mastered the art of tip-toeing beyond party lines, it’s the crossbenchers – that group of 180-odd independent peers who sit in the middle of the chamber. Take David Ramsbotham – or General the Lord Ramsbotham, to be formal. After a successful army career, he served as chief inspector of prisons from 1995 to 2001. Labour’s attempt to abolish the post in 2006 failed because of him. So too did a bid to exempt the Crown from the corporate manslaughter bill of 2007. Even a few years on, the strength of feeling that motivated him has not dimmed. “I felt very strongly about it – why should they get away with it?” he demands. “One formed a coalition of the willing. I couldn’t mobilise the votes by myself.” Working with the opposition frontbench is a win-win scenario: the crossbencher gets the whips to help the cause, while the opposition’s case appears less partisan with an independent as figurehead. There were four votes on the corporate manslaughter bill before (finally) Jack Straw backed down.

Another crossbencher praised by current ministers as a consummate Lords performer is Ilora Finlay. One of her many achievements was triggered a few years ago by her daughter, a junior doctor, who had been upset by an incident in her intensive care unit. “The team were in tears,” she told her mother. A patient whose sibling had died needed an organ transplant. But they weren’t given their sibling’s organ because they were too far down on a waiting list.

After 18 months of nagging ministers, she finally managed to get the relevant waiting list regulations changed. “It was very hard, but I did it.”
Ex-ministers, select committee chairpeople, crossbenchers – all these experienced Lords’ hands have a somewhat patronising view of new arrivals from the Commons. It takes a while for them to become “House-trained”, one says, but they always come round in the end. This time, however, might be different.

During the AV referendum filibustering, a doorkeeper was heard to observe: “They might as well re-cover some of those benches green, sir.” Officials privately believe that the new intake has not yet grasped the Lords ‘deal’. They may find the lack of procedure or discipline odd, but should realise that every amendment gets discussed, that nothing gets skipped over. “If they continue to push the boundaries in the same way, the guillotine motion is in the back pocket,” one official warns grimly.

Part of the problem is the ease with which Labour veterans have signed up to the new agenda. Lord Wallace says they felt “anger and frustration” at no longer being in power. Baroness Royall dismisses that claim as “complete rubbish”. She protests: “I find that completely paternalistic.” Her beef is with David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to form a coalition, which, she claims, has made the opposition’s task “exponentially more difficult” in the Lords.

It’s a numbers game. When she was in power, the Lords was in balance, with no party having overall control. That’s still the case, but the Conservative–Liberal Democrat tie-up has handed the coalition government a political majority. “It has altered fundamentally the way in which the House works – and not for the better,” Baroness Royall complains. According to the calculations of one senior backbencher, the Labour government was defeated in roughly a third of divisions, whereas the coalition is only losing a fifth of votes held.

There is concern that ministers will be less likely to offer concessions, that they will be more heavy-handed. During the AV referendum bill, for the first time the traditional two-week gap between committee stage and report stage was dispensed with, Lord Foulkes points out, at the instigation of government whips. He says it’s wrong of ministers to allege it’s “the new rumbustious members from the House of Commons” who have not been sticking to conventions.

Another worry is that Lords ministers have limited scope to negotiate because the coalition’s decision-making by committee leaves their hands tied. At the beginning of the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, for example, Baroness Royall claims the minister in charge “clearly didn’t have any room for manoeuvre”. “I’m sure he was being told, as I’ve been told in the past, ‘Don’t be so weak. Of course you can get this through’,” she remembers. “As time went on it must have become clear... this was not the way to get the bill to pass.”

Lord Foulkes claims “the mood has changed” – a happy side-effect of the AV referendum brinkmanship. Lord Wallace says a “more consensual approach” is now being adopted, but the memory of the confrontation still lingers. “I think they might have gained more concessions if they had focused on the arguments and had not been quite so obstructive,” Lord Wallace adds, “because that had the effect of irritating and therefore consolidating the coalition.”

The government is preparing to push through its proposals for fundamental reforms of the House of Lords, so this might not be the best time to destabilise the Upper House. The coalition agreement set out Nick Clegg’s ambition to fundamentally reform the Lords, making it “a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber”. This is “a huge looming cloud on the horizon” according to Lord Foulkes. The Lord Speaker disagrees: “This House has changed and continues to change all the time,” she insists. A “complete revolution” has taken place since 1958, when women peers were allowed in the Lords for the first time, he claims.

Labour takes the credit for the most substantial reform of the last century, when in 1999 the vast majority of hereditary peers were replaced with a fundamentally appointed House. That change was radical – but it pales into comparison with the revolution now being contemplated. The majority of peers, it’s thought, don’t like the coalition’s plans one bit. “We’ve come in here to do a job that we think we can contribute to. But to be elected to come in here and do all this?” Lord Ramsbotham fumes. “Sorry, the answer’s no.”

Labour’s answer may be different – it seems they’re all for making the Lords a more bellicose House. “A lot of people who have been ministers want to see this place operate as a proper parliamentary chamber – not as a lap-dog, but to scrutinise legislation properly and properly challenge the government,” Lord Foulkes says. Baroness Royall insists her team was completely united on the AV referendum bill, and will continue to be. “Politics is what we’re about. It’s the way to change things,” she says. “And that’s just the way it is.”

Baroness Hayman disagrees. “A culture that is less confrontational and more consensual is worth defending,” she says cautiously. She doesn’t mind entertaining the idea of reform, acknowledging that every institution can be improved. “But this is a House of Parliament, these are big divides between people. One can’t and shouldn’t try and deny that. So I think we have to find a modus vivendi for the situation in which we find ourselves.”

Until the moment of reckoning arrives, the Lords will continue doing its job of making the government think again – and surprising us all, every so often, in the process.

While we’d been talking, Baroness Finlay had been keeping an eye on the television in the corner of the room, showing an elderly peer in full flow. “I’m going to run into the chamber because we’re going to have a vote very soon – I know how this debate’s going,” she says. And without another word she’s off, running down the corridor, an intrepid – if improbable – sight.

Good for the heart, I suppose.

Alex Stevenson is the deputy editor of politics.co.uk

Tags: Baroness Royall, House of Lords