Lord Roy Kennedy - A Family Affair
The new Labour chief whip Lord Kennedy speaks to Georgina Bailey about his family connections to Parliament, housing, and Lords reform.
“My mum used to work in Parliament, in the Member’s Tea Room in the House of Commons,” he says. Her good friend Betty still works in the parliamentary catering services, and berates him about not calling his mother more often. “When I first took my seat in the Lords, I got my new pass on, I went to get a cup of tea in the Terrace cafeteria, and Betty shouted out: ‘This is Frances’ boy – and he’s a Lord’,” he says, laughing.
Kennedy, 58, who worked for the Labour Party for more than 20 years before receiving a peerage in 2010, says his family are very proud of where he is now. “A Millwall-supporting kid from a council estate in south London, ending up in the House of Lords and being the opposition chief whip – that’s a bit unusual.”
Joined by his wife Alicia on the red benches in 2013, Kennedy held a series of frontbench jobs before being elected unopposed as Labour’s chief whip in the Lords last month.
“I want to be a fair, but fairly tough chief whip, who challenges the government, pushes the government, uses the powers of the House to revise legislation, but also accepts that we’re not elected. The Commons is the elected house, and they can have the final say,” he says.
Kennedy prefers tactics of persuasion to make change, rather than attempting to humiliate the government through repeated defeats in the Lords – even if that persuasion takes years. Despite his new role, he says he will not give up on campaigning on the issues he cares about – in particular, unsafe cladding.
Kennedy grew up on the Aylesbury estate in Walworth, which has since gained infamy through news broadcasts and political appearances as an example of a poverty and crime-ridden estate, and urban decay. However, Kennedy’s memories of living there in the 70s are positive.
“I got my own bedroom for the first time, we had two bathrooms. So we were happy to move there. With lots of the blocks built at the time, we didn’t realise the other problems that that type of housing brought, in that they were off the road, people in dark alleyways and walkways, and all the social problems that people never saw at the time... But we were happy there, we had a nice home there. Sadly, of course, vandalism and other problems quickly made life more difficult.”
We meet the day it is officially announced that former MP for Darlington and senior aide to Labour leader Keir Starmer, Baroness [Jenny] Chapman, is joining the shadow cabinet as the Lords Brexit minister shadowing Lord Frost.
“I’m delighted Jenny’s coming to join us,” Kennedy says. “Jenny’s got a great track record in the Commons... she’ll give a robust challenge to Lord Frost.” Kennedy adds that Frost can expect to be hauled into the Lords more often now.
When it comes to reforming the upper chamber, he believes “the best reforms of the Lords have come from the Lords reforming itself.”
“Largely all the big grandiose plans, in the end fall flat on their face. Gradual reform has worked well, that’s the way to move forward,” he says. While Kennedy would stand for election in an elected Lords, he warns that such reform would raise fundamental questions about the constitution.
“We have to be very clear, what are the powers of the Lords, what do you want the Lords to actually do, and why is it there? Answer those issues, and then we can decide,” Kennedy says.
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