One of the most notable features of the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act last year was the large majority it achieved in the House of Lords. It received a Second Reading by 390 votes to 148, with every grouping in the House – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers – producing a majority in support of the measure. The scale of support, especially on the Conservative side, was greater than that in the House of Commons.
Why the large majority? Such an outcome would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. As Michael McManus points out in his book Tory Pride and Prejudice, there was little support in the Lords for lowering the age of consent or getting rid of Section 28, especially on the Conservative benches. Those of us on the Conservative side arguing in support of change were in a tiny minority. When in 2000 I spoke on the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill – to lower the age of consent – I got some strange looks. The reaction was not confined to my own side. After I countered the claim that homosexuality was not natural – it is known in many species and is natural to those engaging in it – one Labour peer (ex-MP of the old school) said that he heard what I had said, but nonetheless thought it was unnatural anyway. He was totally incapable of defining what he meant.
Opponents of change were not only in a majority, but were also well organised: Baroness Young ran an almost military style operation to maximise the vote against change. Those who were wavering were swept up in the campaign and there was no organisation of any similar scale to counter it. The Parliament Act had to be invoked in order to achieve the lowering of the age of consent.
Since then, there has a been a notable shift, not too marked to begin with, but gaining ground over time. Initially, Baroness Young could muster her supporters to vote against change; then it became a case of the Lords rejecting a measure the first time round, but then not mustering a majority when the Commons insisted. More recently, it became a case of just managing to garner a majority in support of change when a measure was first introduced. However, there was nothing on the scale of what was witnessed last year. Even supporters of the Bill were surprised by the size of the majority.
What then explains the outcome? In part, it was poor organisation on the part of opponents. Baroness Young was no longer with us and her successors lacked her organisational and political skills. Opponents also made a tactical error by deciding to force a vote on Second Reading. A number of peers who were inclined to oppose the Bill felt it wrong for the House to force a vote when the Bill had been passed by such a large majority in the Commons. They voted for the Bill essentially on constitutional grounds, but in so doing helped create such a large majority that it was then impossible for opponents to challenge it at later stages.
However, there were more pervasive forces at work. One was the turnover of peers over the years. The creation of new peers by the Blair and Brown governments resulted in Labour for the first time being the largest party in the House. However, many new members, inclined to favour reform, also came in on the Conservative side: when Conservative supporters of the Bill organised meetings, some of the newer peers (among them a number of fairly high-profile names) were notable among the attenders. The introduction of more women into the House also helped: of women peers voting on Second Reading, 86% voted for the Bill.
The turnover, though, is only part of the explanation. Among those Conservative peers voting for the Bill were long-serving ones who one would not necessarily expect to be natural supporters of the same-sex marriage. Michael McManus refers to my analysis of party groupings in the parliamentary party in the Commons, but it applies also to the Lords: the ‘party faithful’ essentially were following the general mood and swinging behind change. What was notable was that this shift was now greater in the Lords than in the House of Commons. A combination of accepting the will of the Commons, supporting the party leadership (the ministerial team in the Lords proving highly effective) and in some cases apparently peers listening to their children or grandchildren meant a more receptive audience on the Conservative benches than had existed before. In speaking in support of the Bill, I felt I was arguing a case that was reaching a receptive audience; I had not quite realised until the vote just how receptive.