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Labour will not try to delay endlessly Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bill in the House of Lords, partly because of fears its peers are too few and too old to withstand a Tory revenge attack in the upper house at a later date should Sir Keir Starmer lead the party to a general election victory.
Starmer and Baroness Angela Smith, the Labour leader in the Lords, have agreed that while the controversial asylum legislation should be robustly challenged in the second chamber, the will of the elected House of Commons must be respected.
Apart from wanting to respect constitutional propriety, the party’s leadership does not want to give the ruling Conservatives an excuse to launch their own sabotage missions in the Lords against a future Labour government.
“If you shoot yourself in the foot before you’re about to run a marathon, that isn’t a very good thing,” said one Labour official. “We don’t block bills.”
The decision by Labour’s leadership not to deploy wrecking tactics is partly motivated by concerns that the party would run into trouble in government if it had to rely on its 175 peers — with a median age of 76 — to regularly turn out for late night votes to push through legislation faced by a larger, more youthful opposition Tory bloc.
The Conservatives have 270 members of the Lords with a median age of 68, their numbers swelled during the party’s 13 years in power by the appointment of swaths of new and younger peers by Tory premiers, including Boris Johnson.
“We have a lot of sprightly elderly people, but we also have people with ageing-related issues or illnesses or they might be primary carers for their partners,” said the Labour official.
“It affects us in terms of how many people we can get in, especially for evening votes. We struggle to get anywhere near the 120s in terms of numbers, even for crucial votes.”
Baroness Smith has stressed that the Lords is an unelected chamber whose job it is to revise legislation rather than challenge the supremacy of the Commons, which this week backed the Rwanda Safety bill by 320 votes to 276.
Sunak managed to overcome the biggest rebellion of his premiership — 60 Tory MPs tried and failed to toughen the bill — to get it through the final stages in the House of Commons.
The legislation is intended to clear obstacles to allow the government to send some asylum seekers from the UK to the east African country, a controversial policy that Downing Street believes is a key vote winner.
It will face fierce opposition in the Lords but Labour’s approach suggests it is still expected to conclude its final parliamentary hurdle in late March.
Although Sunak publicly warned the Lords not to delay the bill and frustrate “the will of the people”, Tory and Labour business managers had already privately agreed an orderly timetable for its passage through the upper house.
Labour’s ageing representation in the Lords reflects the fact that the party last governed between 1997 and 2010. And while Sir Tony Blair appointed many new peers — dubbed “Tony’s cronies” — in his decade as prime minister, there have been relatively few new arrivals since he left office in 2007.
There has been speculation that Starmer might try to redress the balance by immediately flooding the Lords with “Keir’s peers” if he wins the election, but Smith has ruled out anything beyond a “refresh”. A general election is expected to be held by the autumn with Labour holding an average 18-point poll lead.
“The idea that Keir Starmer is, on Day One, going to have a list of 100 people to put here is cloud cuckoo,” Smith told the House Magazine last month. “Ain’t going to happen.”
She added: “If I’m leader of the House, I don’t want this to be a numbers game, like “yah boo”, we’ve got more than you, we’re going to win, we’re gonna smash this through. That’s not what the House of Lords does.”
Labour’s reluctance to further expand the unelected Lords stems from its pledge to abolish the upper chamber, which has 785 eligible members and is one of the world’s most bloated legislative assemblies: only China’s National People’s Congress is bigger.
Senior party sources admit the objective is unlikely to be achieved in the first term of a Starmer government. But the party could start by phasing out the remaining 91 hereditary peers, so that when they retire or die they are not replaced by another titled aristocrat.
Labour’s oldest peer is Lord Anthony Christopher, 98, while 78-year-old Lord John Monks, former head of the Trades Union Congress, jokes that he always liked to attend the upper house to make himself feel young.
“The age profile has changed a lot. The Conservatives used to be older and there weren’t so many of them,” Monks said.
But he added that Labour peers would be ready for pitched battles with their Tory counterparts if necessary: “There are some pretty determined people in the Labour group in the Lords, regardless of their age.”