Politics

The Salisbury Convention

One interesting thing I’ve recently learned about thanks to my new-found fascination with UK politics, is the Salisbury-Addison Convention. Since Labour’s landslide in 1945, the House of Lords has not opposed, on second reading, any bill that can claim authority from the winning party’s manifesto. For the uninitiated, an election manifesto is what we in Canada call an election platform.

The Salisbury-Addison Convention is a practice adopted by the House of Lords which has evolved so that:

In the House of Lords:

A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;

A manifesto Bill is not subject to “wrecking amendments” which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill; and

A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.

This came to my attention following the release of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition’s programme for government (PDF). That programme is a sort of hybrid of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. It contains some measures common to both parties’ manifestos, some measures that were proposed by one or the other, and some initiatives that weren’t in either party’s manifesto. And of course, neither party campaigned on what the coalition government has pledged to do. The question that has been raised is – are the Lords bound by the Salisbury Convention in this case, or is the coalition government’s legislative agenda in for a rough ride?

Of course, a convention is just that – a convention, not a law or even a standing order. Nothing actually binds the House of Lords to it except tradition. Logically, they should extend this convention to the coalition’s programme as well, given that the new government is simply trying to best serve the nation. However, logic is rarely a dominating feature of politics in any country.

Media reports in the UK indicate that some Lords at least don’t feel at all bound by the Convention in this instance. Labour dominates the Lords, with 211 peers. However, there are 188 Conservative peers, 72 Lib Dem peers, and 182 crossbenchers (independents). The math would appear to be on the coalition’s side, but appearances aren’t always what they seem.

The original 7-page coalition agreement released 11 May 2010 promised to set up a committee to study reforming the House of Lords, and added:

“In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”

As in Canada, it’s the Sovereign who appoints new peers – on the advice of the PM. And the British PM may flood the House of Lords with individuals supportive of his position. And by some accounts that would mean 96 new Lib Dem peers and 77 new Conservative peers. The new Government may just have to do that – despite their pledge to reduce the size of government – if they want their legislative agenda to survive.

Side note to readers: there is no equivalent of the Salisbury Convention in Canada. The Canadian Senate doesn’t give any special treatment or consideration to Government legislation which is based on something contained in that party’s election platform. All bills are treated equally, which is how I think it should be. Just because a party promised something doesn’t mean it’s a good piece of legislation and deserves a freer pass.

(See also this post for the findings of the Commons Select Committee for Political and Constitutional Reform with regards to the Salisbury Convention and the Coalition’s Programme for Government.)

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