I am often asked – well sometimes asked – or to be more precise somebody asked me once: “What is it like becoming a Peer?” Therefore, as a public service, I thought that over the next week or so, I would share my story.
In March 1998, I took it into my head that I might run for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. It would be the first year of the new system with constituency representatives being elected by a ballot of all Party members. As the Chair of the Association of London Government (the body now called “London Councils”) and as the leading Labour local government figure in London and with a quarter of the Party’s national members being in London, I thought I might stand a reasonable chance. Before going any further, I thought, however, I should find out whether I would be going against some master plan determined centrally. So I tried to ring Sally Morgan, who is now a colleague in the Lords, but was then Political Secretary to the Prime Minister.
Over the space of two or three weeks, I called four times and left a message. No return calls. I was beginning to get a bit irritated, I had known Sally for at least ten years, and however pressing life was in Downing Street the very least I thought I was entitled to was getting my call answered. Finally, on the fifth call I was put through. Before I could even ask about the NEC, Sally cut me off: “I’m sorry not to have come back to you before, but I knew your name was being discussed in another context and I thought I should wait until it was resolved before I spoke to you. Anyway, Tony would like you to go into the House of Lords. You don’t have to decide now, but we do need to know by the end of the week.” This was the Tuesday before Easter, so the end of the week was effectively in 48 hours time.
At his point I needed to sit down and I pointed out that I was being asked to make a life-changing decision. I was so busy over the next few days (at that time I worked full-time running the consumer body for the NHS, and in addition was a Council Leader, as well as chairing the ALG) that I said I couldn’t possibly make my mind up on that time-scale and was grudgingly given until the following week, “But you mustn’t say anything to anyone, although I suppose you can tell your wife, but that’s all.”.
The Easter weekend was surreal – we were away with our two teenage sons, the television was full of the negotiations in Belfast that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, and we kept having muttered conversations about whether I should accept the offer from the man on the television with the hand of history on his shoulder. My sons soon realised something was going on. Eventually over breakfast one said “Oh God, they’re not going to make you a bloody Lord are they?”.
In the end – as is obvious – I accepted. I genuinely had not expected the offer, nor had I sought it. The title was no attraction – a few months earlier I had rebuffed suggestions that my name should be put forward for a knighthood on the basis of my local government service – indeed, I was worried that it would be political death in the London Labour Party. Fortunately, I had realised some years before that the life of a backbench member of the House of Commons could be a pretty miserable existence – as a council leader I had far more opportunity to make things happen for my local community than an MP – so the ending of any possibility of entering the Commons was not a big issue as far as I was concerned. I finally convinced myself that the House of Lords would provide me with a platform in which I could argue about the issues that concerned me, campaign on the issues affecting London and at the same time play a part in getting the details of legislation right. (Eleven years on, I am less sure, but that’s a discussion for another day.)