Labour defends peerage for campaigner linked to antisemitism row

A race equality campaigner nominated to become a peer has the right qualities to join the House of Lords despite supporting activists suspended from Labour over antisemitism, the shadow chancellor has said.

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to nominate Martha Osamor, the mother of the Labour MP Kate Osamor, has been described by Jewish groups as a “two-fingered salute” to their community.

Osamor signed a letter protesting against the suspension of party members for alleged antisemitism, including Ken Livingstone, who claimed Adolf Hitler supported Zionism in the 1930s.

John McDonnell said that particular action by Osamor was wrong, but he praised her “commendable” track record of service and insisted the nomination should not be blocked.

McDonnell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “Martha has a whole range of experience and qualities that clearly we would welcome in the House of Lords.”

The shadow chancellor said the nomination should not be blocked “because she has the qualities we need to stand up in the House of Lords, particularly to address issues of inequality within our society”.

He said he was not involved in the appointment but insisted it was “her right” to sign the protest letter.

“I think she’s wrong in that respect because I don’t believe in the views that are expressed in the letter,” he said.

Gideon Falter, chair of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “By elevating Ms Osamor to the peerage, Mr Corbyn has sent an unmistakable signal to those in the Jewish community who still harboured some hope that he might change.

“Mr Corbyn is telling us not only that he sees her behaviour as unproblematic but that he sees it as being worthy of the highest honour and a lifelong seat in the House of Lords.”

Thirteen new peers were announced on Friday, nine of whom will sit as Conservatives. It follows months of government defeats in the Lords on key Brexit legislation.

Appointments to the House of Lords

Labour defends peerage for campaigner linked to antisemitism row

Can the government create peers at any time?

The government can create new peers whenever it likes. But there are a few conventions, agreed between all the parties, and all nominations for a peerage have to be approved. Tax dodging and criminal convictions usually rule out appointment. Outgoing prime ministers often reward old chums with a peerage. Occasionally an MP is propelled into the Lords to create a spare seat in the Commons. By recent custom, peers are created without shifting the balance of power from no overall control.

Is there a limit?

No, and famously the Lords is the second biggest legislative chamber after China’s national people’s congress. It has 750 members, of whom 150 or so inherited their titles. When one dies there is an election among other hereditaries in the same party. When the Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury died, an electorate of 3 voted for his successor. Efforts at shrinking it have led to a retirement scheme but not much else.

What are the alternatives?

Most democratic countries have an elected second chamber, if they have a second chamber at all. Some have a mix of appointed and elected. Efforts to reform the house of lords have foundered on disagreement on questions of scale – how big, what proportion should be elected and on what basis – first past the post, single transferable vote, alternative vote … a fresh start would make almost anything possible.  One idea gaining traction is that it should represent the United Kingdom, bringing together England, Scotland, northern Ireland and Wales in a kind of federal body. But the most contentious question is always whether an elected second chamber would have more powers, which would weaken the House of Commons

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One of the nominees, the former cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles, insisted Theresa May had not been motivated by the setbacks because only one of the new Tory peers was a “committed” Brexiter.

Pickles said he would probably vote remain again if the referendum were restaged but insisted he respected the result: “People have voted and it’s certainly not up to the unelected House of Lords to stand in the way of Brexit.”

He added that how the Lords voted “doesn’t matter that much … It’s the elected chamber that finally decides these things.

“If it’s trying to amend and to improve legislation, the Lords is a great asset. When it’s plainly just dragging its feet, it’s less of an asset.”

Labour will gain three peers and the former DUP MP William McCrea will also join the upper chamber.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined will still have 35 more peers than the Conservatives, and 181 peers sit as crossbenchers.

The Lib Dems, however, accused the prime minister of a “desperate grab for power” and claimed she was “running scared of the mounting criticism of her disastrous handling of Brexit”.

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