A pseudo-democratic caricature
The problem is not the House of Lords’ London bias, or even its unelected character: there should be no second chamber, argues Paul Demarty
Ed Miliband’s latest ‘big idea’ is, at least, not quite as tiny and trivial as the last few.
Instead of promising a trivial amelioration of austerity, or assuring us in the vaguest terms that the NHS is safe in his hands, or vacuously wringing his hands about large-scale immigration in pursuit of the alienated voters flocking to the UK Independence Party, he is proposing a significant constitutional change.
At the party’s north west regional conference held in Blackpool, he proposed to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate, with a distinctly American flavour to it: senators would be elected from the UK’s constituent “nations and regions”, and thus (so the argument goes) would counterbalance the power of Westminster (and the capital more generally), giving the rest of the country a louder and more significant voice in political affairs.
Miliband’s scheme is, of course, the latest in a long line of attempts to reform the Lords - in fact, Liberal Democrat critics have been quick to point out that her majesty’s opposition cynically scuppered the last such gambit two years ago in order to make the government look bad. Pitching his plan as a sort of pseudo-devolution, however, at least allows Miliband to deflect some of these obvious charges: given the chaos in the Scottish Labour Party at present, it is plausible enough that the Labour leader should want to mollify national and regional sentiments.
Miliband is surely right, in a parenthetical remark, to call the Lords “one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business in our constitution”. That business stretches back a long time. The essence of the Lords is expressed in the simple fact that, after the 1642-51 civil war, it was abolished entirely; and then, after the restoration, reconvened. The Lords retained the decisive voice in British politics until at the earliest the 1832 Reform Act, which got rid of most of the Commons’ ‘rotten boroughs’, whose tiny electorates were easily bribed by local aristocrats, and extended the franchise.
The House of Lords retained a veto over legislation until the constitutional crisis of 1909-11. The ‘new Liberals’ of the Asquith government - including Churchill and Lloyd George - saw their plans for the earliest elements of the modern welfare state frustrated repeatedly by a Tory opposition exercised mainly through the Lords.
Lloyd George forced a confrontation by writing a tax-and-spend programme, for social security and military expansion, into the 1909 budget, which by convention should have gone through on the nod. The Lords vetoed it; Asquith and Lloyd George did not blink. The result was the 1911 Parliament Act, which removed the power of veto, allowing the Lords instead only to delay and revise legislation.
Reforming the Lords, it seems, is the British constitutional version of invading Afghanistan - a long guerrilla struggle invariably ensues, with the belligerents left exhausted. In both 1832 and 1911, reform was only possible through the king threatening to make new pro-reform peers until a majority was engineered; both times, the Lords backed down to preserve what power they could. The winning of the Parliament Act destroyed the Liberal Party: the alliances necessary (with Irish nationalists, Labour and the like) opened the fault lines along which it would fracture during and after the war.
The only significant change since then has been first the introduction of ‘life peers’ in 1958, and then the expulsion of hereditary peers by Blair’s government. The notion - somewhat laughable - was that, instead of gaining political power by virtue of one’s birth, a member of the Lords should earn it by demonstrating merit and usefulness to ‘the country’. The result has naturally been the explosion of cronyism; bourgeois party hacks get ennobled, as do the sort of unscrupulous, ambitious businesspeople whom party leaders like to court. David Cameron is particularly egregious, having granted 117 peerages in this parliament - something like John Paul II’s enthusiasm for making saints, if a little less spiritually based.
There is one encouraging thing about Miliband’s proposal: it makes it transparently clear that the current Lords set-up cannot last forever.
We are in a quiet constitutional crisis, driven primarily by the near miss for Scottish nationalism; and, while that vote reflected widespread disillusionment with Westminster in general rather than the Lords specifically, an upper house crammed with cronies on the make is plainly the unacceptable face of the British constitution. Miliband’s plan for a ‘constitutional convention’ is thus, in its own way, welcome; although we cannot imagine it will be particularly democratic in practice.
Still, his plan for the Lords will fail - in the first instance, on its own terms.
It is utterly implausible that a second chamber so elected will actually redress the lopsided, London-heavy British body politic. That lopsidedness is determined ultimately by the concentration of economic activity in the capital - to be close to Westminster is, by the same token, to be close to the City and Canary Wharf. The Commons already consists of people nominally dispatched from diverse localities around the country; but in practice the result is hundreds of MPs living and working at least half of the time in taxpayer-funded London residences, which the 2009 expenses scandal revealed to be a nice source of personal profit, given a little ingenuity.
Andrew Adonis, the Blairite former transport secretary, suggests that Miliband’s senate should meet in Manchester; but moving the upper house northwards will not drag the financial services sector in its slipstream. If such a move had any effect, it would be to entrench Manchester as Britain’s de facto second city, a process already in motion. Wherever a second chamber congregates, we expect it will be subject to the same lobbying, corruption and grasping; and it will be in the pocket of the same Square Mile counting houses.
Miliband claims his senate will tack away from the trend towards the centralisation of power in Britain over the last few decades; but doing so through a countrywide house of elected representatives is perverse. The more appropriate response to regions being swept aside by London is to give the regions more power to govern themselves - on this front, however, Miliband’s proposals are more modest and tokenistic by far (he wants to give urban authorities the right to buy back and reintegrate bus services, for example - worthy, but not something that gets the pulse racing).
As for the elephant in the room - Scotland - what is necessary is a federal republic, in which Scotland and Wales have full rights, including the right to secede. It will be a cold day in hell before Ed Miliband advocates anything of that sort; instead, rights will be drip-fed to the Scots and Welsh as and when it is unavoidable.
Rearranging the deckchairs
There is a broader issue, however, which is that the various wheezes for reforming the Lords - or, as in this case, replacing it entirely - amount in an important sense to rearranging the deckchairs.
Yes, given the choice between an unelected second chamber - whether composed of dissolute aristocrats and bishops or establishment cronies - and an elected one, the latter is superficially preferable from a democratic point of view. After all an elected second chamber would carry a legitimacy the House of Lords clearly lacks at present. But why on earth should there be a second chamber at all? The people have already voted once, for their representatives in the Commons (hardly a flawless process at present, but let us leave that aside for now). Why should they be asked to express their views again for another whole set of politicians?
Various reasons are offered, but they all boil down to dispersing power among different branches of government, and thus to diluting the popular will. Two houses of parliament will never be more effective than one at making policy and legislation; they will frequently be less so, deadlocked by quirks of the electoral cycle (or, in the case of Miliband’s plan, paralysed by legal disputes over which house has responsibility for what).
Capitalism is incompatible with thorough, authentic democracy. The system can only be maintained by concentrating power in the hands of a small class, at the expense of much larger classes. Those elements of democracy that have arisen in capitalist societies have done so in reaction to determined struggle on the part of the popular classes: crucially the working class, which formed the backbone of the Chartist movement, and even in its infancy played important roles in the upheavals of the 17th century. Bicameralism is a means of obstructing the fulfilment of the democratic impulse.
Principled democratic republicans are unicameralists; we do not wish to slow down the machinery of government, or to prevent the masses making the wrong choice. We do not seek a ‘better’ House of Lords, or a senate: the whole thing - along with its cousins, the monarchy, the standing army and unelected judicial power - should be abolished.