Smash the People’s Senate!

Jack Straw’s proposal for a fully elected second chamber is motivated by a desire to limit and frustrate real, direct, passionate democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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In the debate about the House of Lords – Britain’s undemocratic second chamber which is currently stuffed with 746 life peers, hereditary peers and men of the cloth – reform-minded politicians and commentators always ask the wrong question: ‘What should we replace it with?’ It shouldn’t be replaced with anything. It shouldn’t be reformed, modernised, ‘democratised’, radicalised, rethought, reshaped, remade or even redecorated. It should be abolished, and there should be only one House of Parliament – the elected Commons – which should stand or fall on its own merits and be answerable to only one section of society: the electorate.

That continually asked, horizon-lowering question – ‘Who should we put in the Lords’ place?’ – is revealing. It speaks to a political elite which feels uncomfortable with the old farts who have traditionally sat/slept in the Lords, yet which feels even more uncomfortable with the idea of trusting the electorate, of leaving politics entirely in the hands of the common people and their elected Commons. The political elite recognises the Lords is archaic yet it has a powerful instinct in favour of having some kind of second chamber as a check on the passions of the public. This is clear in New Labour justice secretary Jack Straw’s latest proposals for reforming the Lords.

‘House of Lords to be abolished’ says a headline in this morning’s Daily Mail. If only it were true. In reality, Straw is set to propose, in the run-up to the General Election, the reconstitution and rebranding of the House of Lords, complete with a name change to ‘the People’s Senate’. The plan is to whittle the Lords down to 300 members, from its current 700-plus members, and to make them fully elected under a system of proportional representation. Members would serve fixed terms and would sit in the Senate for a maximum of 15 years. ‘The only way that a legislative assembly can be legitimate in the modern world is to be elected’, says one New Labour official.

Political reformers, from Guardian columnists to groups such as Power2010, are overexcited, believing that if Straw’s proposals were pushed through, it would be ‘a great day for democracy’. It would be no such thing. The whole point of a second chamber, however it is constituted, is to limit and frustrate the desires of the public, to keep an educated, aloof check on the choices made by the mass of the people. Whether the second chamber is unelected, as Britain’s Lords was for the past few centuries, or elected, as it is in a country like America, fundamentally its aim is to dampen political passions and ensure that only sensible (read ‘elite-friendly’) decisions are made.

In Britain’s case, the democratic will of the first chamber (the Commons) was traditionally ‘checked and balanced’ by the aristocracy (the Lords). As the English revolutionary Tom Paine put it in 1776, the English constitution is ‘the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials’. The Crown, he said, embodied ‘the remains of monarchical tyranny’, the Lords embodied ‘the remains of aristocratical tyranny’, and the Commons represented those ‘new republican materials… on whose virtue depends the freedom of England’. Following various reforms from the 1950s onwards, and in particular under New Labour in the late 1990s, most of the aristocrats – the hereditary peers – were thrown out, only to be replaced by new-fangled, party-selected life peers whose second-chamber duties were precisely the same as their cobwebbed forebears: to ‘check and balance’ the first chamber.

In the US, though the Founding Fathers of the 1770s were inspired by Paine in their creation of a new republic, they also decided to institute an upper chamber explicitly to make sure that the radical spirit did not run away with itself. The current electoral system for America’s Senate tends to give greater weight to smaller, more rural states, which are usually more conservative than the bigger ones. In The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays published in 1788 which called for the ratification of the US Constitution, James Madison, who would later become the fourth US president, explained the importance of a second chamber. It offers protection against popular ‘fickleness and passion’, he said. ‘A necessary fence against this danger would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels.’

This is the model now cited by Straw and his supporters: a system which injects conservatism into everyday political decision-making and which creates ‘fences’ against popular fickleness by elevating a small number of ‘enlightened citizens’. Whether the members of a second chamber are selected, elected, handpicked by God or chosen by national lottery, their job will fundamentally be the same: to keep a watchful eye on the antics of what is presumed to be the more volatile, unpredictable, possibly too fickle and passionate first chamber. And why is it presumed to be all those things? Precisely because it is directly elected by the public, thus representing the clearest manifestation of our apparently unenlightened political instincts.

In some ways, having an elected second chamber in Britain would make things worse than they are. Lots of people are currently fretting about the possibility of having a hung parliament after the General Election, yet Straw’s elected second chamber would represent the institutionalisation of a permanently hung parliament in which it would be unclear which chamber truly represented the authority of the people. Both chambers would have a mandate from the masses, making it hard to work out which of them really represented our interests, and possibly making the second chamber even more interventionist and arrogant than the unelected House of Lords currently is. The end result would be a fruitless clash of mandates and the further dissipation of the people’s will.

Over the centuries the Commons has clashed with the Lords, not simply because the Lords was made up of plummy-voiced, foxhunting men with an irritating in-built sense of natural-born privilege, but because the Commons recognised that the second chamber posed a threat to the democratic will and the everyday business of the first. In the constitutional crisis of 1909-1911, for example, Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith faced down the Lords after it refused to pass his chancellor’s ‘People’s Budget’. The Lords’ veto on the budget was overturned, and Asquith fought an election on the very issue, publicly and loudly establishing the democratic primacy of the Commons over the Lords.

Today, in Straw’s proposals, there is nothing remotely resembling a clash of wills or principles. These days, reformers do clash with the Lords on the basis of who is in it – the 92 remaining hereditary peers, all those bishops, ‘Tony’s cronies’ – rather than on the grounds that a second chamber is a problematic idea. Indeed, they want to get rid of the old guard and replace it with elected officials in order to preserve the ideal of the second chamber and what they consider to be its important business: checking and balancing popular fickleness. It is not any instinct for democracy that makes Straw and Co. want to have an elected second chamber – it is a suspicion of democracy.

As Politics with a capital P has become more and more removed from the people, so everyone from the political elite to campaigning journalists to radical activists has become more accepting of, and even enamoured by, the idea of a second chamber. Right-wingers have looked to the lords to stand up for things like foxhunting against the ‘uncouth’ Commons, while human rights activists call upon the lords to wield their power in order to overturn illiberal legislation. Politicians and political activists trust judges and experts more than they do the ‘fickle’ public and our elected representatives. Between the second chamber and numerous newly created quangos and parliamentary committees, there are far too many ‘fences’ – if not barbed wire-topped walls – against the passions of the public. As we head for a General Election it is surely time to tear these fences down and give free rein to meaningful public debate and public decision-making. Smash the People’s Senate!

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. He is speaking at The Battle for Politics: A Pre-Election Public Summit, organised by the Institute of Ideas, in central London on Saturday 20 March 2010. For more informaton, click here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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