Labour peers in the House of Lords are “pathetic” and “not up for the fight” against the Conservatives, Tim Farron has said, blaming the party’s low turnout for a string of government victories in the second chamber.
The Lib Dem leader claimed opposition peers “don’t feel part of team Labour” because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and highlighted five times in the past four weeks of parliamentary business when Labour missed the chance to defeat the Tories.
“We could be causing a lot more nuisance,” Farron told the Guardian. “We could be defeating the government far more often if the Labour party weren’t so pathetic in the House of Lords … They’re supposed to be an opposition but they don’t behave like one often enough.”
The Lib Dems pointed to the recent Lords vote on extending the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in the forthcoming EU membership referendum as an example of how a higher Labour turnout would have secured victory for the opposition. Some 80.2% of Lib Dem peers voted on the motion, compared with 63.8% of Labour peers.
“If you think the parliamentary Labour party in the Commons is anti-Corbyn you haven’t seen nothing. I think three Labour lords actually voted for him,” said Farron.
It is the first time in history that a Conservative government has not also dominated the second chamber, as the House of Lords Act 1999 removed the majority of hereditary peers, many of whom were Conservative supporters.
Since the Lib Dems returned to parliament with only eight MPs after the general election, the party has made the most of its considerable strength in the Lords, where it has 111 peers. The party has come in for criticism for breaking with convention and voting against measures concerning financial matters, when its peers joined with Labour lords to reject proposals to cut £4bn from the tax credit bill.
“You’ve got to use the machinery that’s available to you,” said Farron. “There’s nobody in this country that is more opposed to the House of Lords in its current form than the Liberal Democrats, but we don’t agree with [the] first-past-the-post [electoral system] either and we still stand for elections.”
Farron said his principal complaint about Corbyn was not that he was too leftwing or a threat to national security, as the Tory party is keen to argue, but that his party was “a crap opposition”.
“I disagree with [Corbyn] on a number of points, but I imagine he’s more likely to agree with me on refugees or climate change than Tony Blair or Gordon Brown might have done,” said Farron. “I think he’s often wrong, but I don’t dislike the guy. I think he’s a lot more genuine than people have been making out.”
Asked how he sees the Labour party’s future, Farron said: “My honest view is that the Labour party will have to go through at least a failed coup [by the self-styled moderates in the party].”
He argued that, while the two biggest parties were moving to extremes, his party was more important than ever, repeating the suggestion that the Lib Dems could provide a home for disaffected moderates from both the Conservatives and Labour.
“You’re going to have progressives in both parties – more of them in Labour than in the Tories – who will probably feel that their home doesn’t feel very welcoming at the moment,” he said.
Farron said his hope for 2016 was that he could make liberalism “the only alternative worth taking seriously” to the Tories in Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood, though he remained open-minded about how that could be achieved.
“I think that that liberal alternative, obviously I want the Liberal Democrats to be the centre of it. I don’t know what kind of format it might look like and I don’t want to be prescriptive. What happened in 1981 with the formation of the SDP, that’s one interesting model, but it’s not one that I say has to happen.”
A Labour source in the Lords said that Farron’s comments risked jeopardising the productive relationship between Labour and Lib Dem peers in the chamber and that you couldn’t compare the voting culture of the Lords with that of the Commons because it was part-time.
“It is pretty rich of him to, on the one hand, be slagging off the Lords and then – because it is the only place that his party has a political presence at the moment – start trying to make out that they are somehow the bastions of scrutiny and opposition in the second chamber.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 13th January 2016 12.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010