Bring down the House

The half-hearted proposed reform of the House of Lords shows that our governing class has precious little instinct for democracy.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics UK

Once upon a time, New Labour proposed to do something about the House of Lords. But after kicking the subject into the long grass for a few years, a new scheme has been put forward. Trouble is, Jack Straw’s hybrid proposal of a part-elected, part-appointed chamber is widely regarded as a messy compromise.

In 1997, the first Labour government for eighteen years was elected with a vague commitment to modernise British democracy. They were imbued with a sense that the existing parliamentary institutions were unfair. But their instincts confused two separate things. First, there is the real problem of the undemocratic elements in Britain’s constitution. Second, there was the Labour Party’s self-serving belief that they had been kept from power, not by their failure to convince the voters, but because of ‘the system’.

The last time the reform of the House of Lords was debated, the parties agreed to abolish hereditary peerages, but failed to decide what to put in their place. In the hiatus, the Lords bumped along. With the House of Commons, dominated by New Labour, showing a predeliction for authoritarian policing stunts, the unelected Lords even managed to pose as the champions of civil liberties.

In the past, Labour was clearer about what it wanted. The 1983 manifesto promised to ‘abolish the undemocratic House of Lords as quickly as possible’ (p29), and Ken Livingstone warned against ‘preserving this relic of the ancien regime’ in 1989 (Livingstone’s Labour, p76).

But after failing to win the voters to its programme of big government welfarism in three successive elections (1983, 1987, 1992) the Labour Party had lost faith in the voters. They no longer wanted to increase democratic control over government, but to protect the state from popular pressure. Out of office, Labour dreamed of new legal and bureaucratic institutions to contain the House of Commons, like the Parliamentary Standards Ombudsman, adopting the European Convention on Human Rights, or even a written constitution.

No wonder, then, that when they came to look at the House of Lords reform, confusion reigned. On the one hand, Labour MPs had a vague recollection that they had something important to say about the House of Lords. But when they thought about it, they had a lot more in common with the classical defence of the House of Lords than they did with their Old Labour demand for abolition. Like High Tories, they instinctively reacted against the idea that the Commons – elected by the people – should be wholly sovereign. Constitutional ‘expert’ Tony Wright even revived Lord Hailsham’s bogey of the ‘elective dictatorship’ as a rebuttal.

In that frame of mind, a non-sequitur arose: ‘When we abolish the Lords, what should we put in its place?’ But why should you want to put anything in its place? Let the Commons stand on its own two feet and take responsibility for its actions. If the laws are wrong, let the voters kick them out.

All of that, though, was alien to the current Labour administration. They instinctively decided to replace the zoological principle of hereditary peerages with the clientelist principle of the prime minister’s appointment. We are already surrounded by a great mass of appointed mediocrities exercising unwarranted power over our lives. Now, it is suggested, these same dullards would be there checking that the elected chamber, already heavily policed by New Labour’s hundreds of policy advisers and spin doctors, did not, by accident, do anything interesting.

For those who still want to lay claim to the democratic mantle there is the alternative proposal for an elected second chamber. But this is an absurdity. With two elected chambers, there is no principle to decide which will be pre-eminent, since both can claim a mandate.

Worse still is Straw’s proposal that half the chamber be elected, the other appointed. What would happen if the appointees swung the vote one way or another – all authority deriving from election would be a mockery. The very fact of the compromise between election and appointment indicates that the ‘reform’ is itself a failure to choose – Straw’s indecision made into an institution.

The obvious answer is there. Abolish the House of Lords. Put nothing in its place. Parliament, take responsibility for your Acts.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics UK


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