The Lords’ declining reputation: The evidence


This week the House of Lords has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – with widespread criticism of David Cameron’s latest round of appointments, which have seen the already oversized chamber grow further still. Such negative stories have become common since Cameron became Prime Minister. Meg Russell reports on updated research about media representations of the Lords, and shows definitively the damaging effects that uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments have had on the chamber’s reputation since 2010.

This has been a disastrous news week for the Lords. David Cameron’s appointment of an additional 45 new peers has met with universal media condemnation. We have been told that the Lords is an ‘obese, obsolescent body’ (Telegraph) or an ‘upper house of sleaze and cronyism’ (Sunday Express), that ‘the bloated Upper House has become a laughing stock’ (Mail) or ‘a national embarrassment’ (Sunday Times), and that there is a need to ‘cut the bloated House of Lords down to size’ (FT). The Mirror greeted the appointments with the headline ‘Just when you thought the House of Lords couldn’t get worse’, while one columnist in the Guardian suggested that ‘the latest list of dissolution honours is so self-parodically venal that it resembles a dare’. An analysis of the week’s coverage by media-watcher Roy Greenslade concluded that ‘National newspapers of the left, right and centre were united in their disgust’. As an Observer commentator put it, ‘where is there left to go when Polly Toynbee of the Guardian and Quentin Letts in the Mail find themselves in perfect agreement?’

This is a deeply depressing situation. Such stories can only serve to drive down trust in the House of Lords, and thus more generally in parliament, and indeed probably in politics as a whole. The growing size of the chamber is already threatening its effectiveness. If the Lords is derided, and becomes ever less well respected, this too risks making it increasingly less capable of carrying out its important tasks of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account.

It would be easy to think that the Lords – as an unelected chamber – always attracts negative media comment. But my research has shown that this is far from the case. As I reported in my book on the Lords two years ago, an analysis of national newspaper editorials since the majority of hereditary peers were removed in 1999 found editorials mentioning the Lords to be often more positive than negative. This changed in 2009, when the Lords (like the Commons) was hit by the expenses crisis. When the analysis for the book was completed in April 2012, coverage of the Lords had not recovered.

We have recently updated the analysis to July 2015, and the results are startling. While coverage of the Lords under Blair was on balance positive, and under Brown (thanks to the negative spike in 2009) was more mixed, since Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 coverage has been overwhelmingly negative. We summarise these findings, which are based on analysis of almost 800 newspaper editorials mentioning the House of Lords since 1999, in the three graphs below.

For those interested in research methods, here’s what we did. Our starting point was editorials – i.e. where the newspaper’s own opinion, rather than that of a named journalist or commentator, is expressed – looking at the nine main national newspapers, and their Sunday equivalents. We first selected all editorials that included the term ‘House of Lords’. Those which made no mention of the Lords as a political institution (e.g. referring to it instead as a court) were discarded. This left us with 798 articles, to end of July 2015. All of these were read for references from which the implied legitimacy of the House of Lords could be inferred. Just under half of the articles contained no such statement (for example simply mentioning that a person sat in the Lords or that a bill had passed). But 428 articles did provide some indications of whether the House of Lords could be considered legitimate or not. These were coded for type of mention (further discussed below), and whether the impression created of the Lords was positive, negative or neutral/mixed.

A summary of the number of articles by year, and their breakdown for positivity and negativity, is given in the first graph. This demonstrates the patterns just mentioned. In many years 1999-2008 the number of positive stories (in green) outweighed the number of negative (in red). In 2009 there was a large spike in negative stories. In every subsequent year negative stories have heavily outweighed positive ones. This result is now far clearer than it was in mid-2012.

Articles by year

Because analysis now covers 17 separate years, this data becomes a little difficult to read. The second graph shows number of positive and negative editorials by parliament: breaking the data into three parliaments under Labour (1997-2001, 2001-05 and 2005-10) and one under the coalition (2010-15). Here election years are split on general election day, and hence editorials appearing after the 2015 general election are excluded. This means that the data omits the rash of recent negative stories around the Lord Sewell affair, as well as last week’s appointments. In other words, the analysis does not exaggerate negative coverage since Cameron became Prime Minister, but understates it.

Articles by PM term

Here we see clearly that positive editorials outweighed negative ones during Labour’s first two terms in office. In Labour’s third term the number of positive editorials increased further, but was nonetheless outweighed by negative ones due to the expenses spike in 2009. In the 2010 parliament the picture was quite different: positive coverage actually declined, while negative coverage further increased. Negative editorials outweighed positive ones by nearly 3:1.

What accounts for this change? At this point the different types of legitimacy that we coded for become important. When judging the legitimacy of an institution, political scientists often distinguish between input legitimacy (how people get there, and the kinds of people they are), procedural legitimacy (how they organise their work, sometimes referred to as ‘throughput’ legitimacy) and output legitimacy (the institution’s policy effects). Elected bodies will hope to enjoy input legitimacy, because they have a democratic mandate. Unelected institutions, such as courts, clearly do not share this – though they may enjoy input legitimacy of other kinds, for example if they are thought to be appointed in an appropriate way, and include respected experts. But studies show that how the public judge such institutions can depend heavily on views about their methods of working and policy decisions.

These distinctions are important when it comes to judgements about the House of Lords. For example a public opinion survey that I commissioned about the Lords in 2007 showed that while only 36% of respondents believed that ‘the process of choosing members of the House of Lords [was] a good one’ (compared to 62% for the Commons), 57% believed that ‘the House of Lords generally carrie[d] out its policy role well’ (compared to 53% of the Commons). That is, the public liked what the House of Lords did, but were less happy about how people got there. But when asked about what mattered to the legitimacy of the Lords, the same survey found that input factors nonetheless mattered. Crucially, 76% said that ‘trust in the appointments process’ was very important. In addition, 54% thought it was very important that ‘many members [were] experts in their field’.

These attitudes are, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflected in media coverage (though the question of whether media coverage drives public opinion or the other way around is an interesting one). Our analysis shows that coverage of the House of Lords’ procedural or ‘throughput’ legitimacy is often positive. For example, in March 2007 the Daily Mail suggested that ‘Peers work longer and harder than the Commons and approach issues with a purpose which MPs often lack. Their defeats of Government come not from bloody-mindedness but from principle and common sense’; in June 2009 the Financial Times noted that ‘The House of Lords has long been a better forum for debate on complex questions than the Commons’. In contrast, references to output legitimacy can be more mixed, depending on the newspaper’s view of the policy at hand – but under Labour the Lords often united the left- and right-leaning press in its support. This helps to account for the increase in positive coverage in 2001-05, when Tony Blair faced battles with the Lords on civil liberties matters. Papers on the left found themselves in agreement with the Daily Mail’s praise for ‘a robust and courageous House of Lords’ over the chamber’s challenge to the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill. In 2008 the Guardian likewise congratulated the Lords for having ‘crushed the government’s bankrupt scheme to lock up terrorist suspects for 42 days’.

In contrast, while some good words can be found for the chamber’s input legitimacy (as for example when the Telegraph noted in 2009 that the Lords was ‘replete with former chancellors, Bank officials, economists and suchlike experts’), editorials referring to the chamber’s method of composition more often take a negative view. And since David Cameron became Prime Minister, media attention has increasingly focused on these matters – due to his excessive levels of appointment. These appointments, and the effect that they have had on the chamber’s size and cost, have sparked rounds of increasingly negative stories. Tony Blair reduced the size of the Lords, made its membership more defensible than previously, and (no doubt inadvertently) united newspapers of left and right in praise of its policy interventions. In contrast David Cameron has done precisely the opposite in terms of the chamber’s composition, and united papers of left and right in condemnation of its growing size. These stories have effectively drowned out the kind of positive coverage that used to refer to the chamber’s important day-to-day work.

The figures in the third and final graph, dividing newspapers by their political stance, are particularly striking. In Labour’s first term the left-leaning newspapers (Mirror, Independent and Guardian) tended to view the Lords negatively, whilst the right-leaning newspapers (Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun) viewed it positively. In the second term, although Labour was still in government and facing challenges from the Lords, the left-leaning newspapers (and the neutral broadsheets: Times and Financial Times), presented the chamber increasingly positively. In Labour’s third term there was an increase in stories, with more of a mix across the political spectrum. But in 2010-15 the balance of coverage has been negative in all newspaper types. In particular the right-leaning papers have moved from their long-standing support for the Lords to condemnation. This is not due to coverage of the chamber’s policy interventions now that it has the capacity to defeat Cameron’s government. If this was the focus it might have brought the left-leaning newspapers further over to the Lords’ support. Instead it is more the case that Cameron’s appointments strategy has helped to unite the entire print media against the Lords.

Term grid

The consequences of all this for the House of Lords itself are extremely serious. As an unelected institution, it is vulnerable to criticism and even ridicule. David Cameron’s appointments have made it far more so. Media stories extolling the virtues of the chamber’s expert membership or thoughtful deliberation have been drowned out by those commenting on ‘cronies’ and overcrowding. In a blog last week I reflected on whether the Prime Minister is even deliberately seeking to damage the chamber’s reputation in order to weaken it against his government. Whether or not this is a deliberate strategy it is certainly likely to have such an effect. As the analysis here plainly shows, the House of Lords’ reputation in the national media has declined particularly sharply since 2010. This can only serve to damage the chamber in the eyes of the public, and the reputation of parliament and politics as a whole.

It is to be hoped that these findings will worry those in government, who should want parliament to command respect. The findings should certainly worry defenders of parliament, including those in the Lords itself. As to what should be done, a thoughtful editorial in this week’s Times (paywall) offered some suggestions, as did our report this February. The time for government to act to clean up appointments has now long passed. The Lords may instead need to take bold action, and fast.

The research reported in this post was funded by the UCL Department of Political Science, and builds on earlier work funded by the ESRC and donors to the Constitution Unit. I am grateful to Artemis Photiadou and Ruxandra Serban for research assistance.

About the Author

Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics, and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. She is author of The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived (Oxford University Press, 2013) and numerous other publications about the Lords. Her most recent report Enough is Enough: Regulating Prime Ministerial Appointments to the Lords was published on 9 February 2015 by the Constitution Unit (and is downloadable by clicking the title).

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