Establishment hypocrisy and Miss Whiplash
Eddie Ford wants to do away with the second chamber altogether
We are all now familiar with the exploits of the former Labour peer and deputy speaker of the House of Lords, John Sewel (aka ‘Lord Coke’). Sewell, on £82,525 per annum plus generous expenses, was forced to resign on July 28 when The Sun released hidden camera footage of him seemingly snorting cocaine with two “£200-a-night” prostitutes in his “discounted” Pimlico flat, whilst wearing a “hooker’s” orange bra and leather jacket.1 The “shamed” lord, we further read, paid one of the woman £200 in cash and wrote the other a cheque for the same amount and then - even more disgracefully, we assume - invited them to have dinner with him at the peers’ dining room at the Lords, “ahead of another orgy” he had allegedly arranged for September.
Maybe even more embarrassingly, whether for him or the establishment as a whole, during the “sordid session” he was not shy about offering his views on various politicians. In his capacity as “sneer of the realm”, as TheSun memorably put it, he not inaccurately described David Cameron as the “most facile, superficial prime minister there’s ever been”. As for Boris Johnson, he is “a joke”, “public-school upper class twit” and an “arsehole” - Sewel might be onto something there. Nor does he have a particularly high opinion of his Labour colleagues. Once a close ally of Tony Blair, he thinks Yvette Cooper is “not bright enough” and Liz Kendall “naive” - while Andy Burnham “goes wherever the wind blows”. Once again, hard to disagree. Sewel, who regards himself as “left of centre”, is definitely not impressed by Jeremy Corbyn, however - Corbyn is apparently a “typical romantic idiot”, because he wants “high taxes”, an “increase in welfare spending” and “no control over immigration”. Once a Blairite, always a Blairite, it seems.
Rather unfortunately for Sewel, he also happened to chair the privileges and conduct committee concerned with “upholding standards”. Only two weeks ago he was boasting that the Lords had taken “major steps” to “protect its reputation” and “punish misconduct”, for the first time having the power to “expel permanently” errant members of the second chamber. Indeed. Of course, even for a peer of the realm taking a prohibited class A drug is a criminal offence - at least in theory, anyway. Accordingly, two days before he formally resigned from the Lords, detectives from the Met’s special inquiry team of the homicide and major crime command searched Sewel’s Dolphin Square flat under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. So far he has not been charged with anything.
Looking at Sewel, it is impossible not to be reminded of the stories that appeared 10 years ago about George Osborne and the dominatrix, Natalie Rowe (‘Miss Whiplash’ or ‘Mistress Pain’). First published in the Sunday Mirror, Rowe revealed that Osborne was a “regular” at “wild, drug-fuelled parties” at her west London flat in the early 90s.2 She said Osborne was “fascinated with what I did for a living” and “hung around” her flat while she was with clients, “sometimes even talking to them when they were finished”.
Rowe also made the interesting observation that the years when “Thatcherism was triumphant” were “golden years for hookers” like her - there was “so much money around and the bars and clubs were full of energy”.3 Even when the recession came, as she also pointed out, this “didn’t slow things down” either for her or the “Osborne crowd” - they “certainly didn’t care about anyone who was suffering economic hardship”. Slightly oddly, Rowe’s 2013 memoirs, Chief whip: memoirs of a dominatrix, was quickly withdrawn from sale and is currently not available from either eBay or Amazon.
Nor should we forget the “posh hooliganism” of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, whose former members include Johnson, Cameron and Osborne and many others. As Wikipedia points out, the club is noted for its “boisterous rituals”: ie, its members would get totally bombed on champagne and fine port, not to mention various psychoactive chemicals. Then they would cause “fucking carnage”, using the words of one participant, who recalled going to an Indian restaurant and generating £10,000 of damage - which they paid to the restaurateur “then and there” to buy his silence.4 This was not a particularly unusual occurrence, it seems. (In February 2013 the Daily Mirror reported that an initiation ceremony for a new club member entailed burning a £50 note in front of a beggar.)
However, communists are obliged to ask: why did Sewel have to resign, but not the “chancellor of the Sexchequer”, Osborne? OK, the latter’s “hedonistic lifestyle” is decades old, whilst Lord Coke’s misdemeanours were only a few weeks ago - but what is the difference? Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and criminality is criminality. But unlike the prurient tabloid press, our primary accusation against Sewel is not one of illegal drug-taking or sex with prostitutes - he is an adult who should be free to do what he likes with his time, so long as it is with other consenting adults. Rather, our charge is of hypocrisy. As an ermined member of the legislature, he passes all manner of laws against drug use and prostitution despite happily engaging in such practices himself.
But the real victims of these laws are working class people not enjoying the privileges and virtual legal immunities of someone like Lord Sewel - will he ever be prosecuted? Do not hold your breath. Every year tens of thousands of young adults, for example, end up getting a criminal record for taking drugs like cannabis - potentially ruining their prospects for any sort of meaningful future employment. No, the Sewel episode reminds us yet again that all drugs should be legalised and prostitution decriminalised.
But then there is the extremely important question of the Lords itself. In his resignation statement, Sewel said he had stepped down so as to not “undermine” an institution he holds “dear” - after all, the Lords are a “vital but undervalued part of our political system”.
Here is the rub, naturally. The second chamber, along with the monarchy, is a great stabilising force for the ruling class - acting as a check and balance against democracy. It acts as ideological cement, a near perfect conduit into the establishment club - neutralising and seducing any potential troublemakers or loose cannon. You are part of the club now, old bean. Since the 1911 Parliament Act asserting the “supremacy” of the House of Commons (the passing of which essentially destroyed the Liberal Party) the only noteworthy changes have been the introduction of ‘life peers’ in 1958 and then the cutting down on the hereditary peers by the Blair government - the risible idea being that such innovations would create a ‘meritocratic’ chamber, as opposed to one where political power was gained almost purely by virtue of one’s birth. The predictable result, needless to say, was an unedifying and exponential rise in cronyism - with talentless party hacks getting ennobled, along with droves of dubious, ruthless businesspeople that bourgeois politicians like to celebrate as ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘wealth creators’.
Look at David Cameron’s instinctive response to the Lord Sewel scandal. Did he embark on a programme of radical reform, perhaps proposing to abolish life peers or introduce some sort of electoral mechanism? You must be joking. Instead, get the truth straight from the horse’s mouth, the Daily Mail: “Fury over PM’s bid to stuff Lords with Tory donors” - the prime minister wants to “pack it full of supporters to push through laws” (July 30). Hence Cameron has apparently put forward a list of almost 40 Conservative supporters to be elevated to the peerage that will include a “big handful” of businessmen who have donated large amounts of money to the party - though originally he wanted to appoint 100 peers until being blocked by senior civil servants (naturally this has been officially denied by Downing Street).
Speaking on July 28, Cameron justified the move in the following way: “It is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons. At the moment it is well away from that.” Of course, the real reason for appointing a load more Tory peers is because, although he has a (slim) majority in the Commons, that is not the case in the Lords and there is no guarantee that their lordships will vote for all government legislation. The present tally of politically aligned peers is 227 Conservative, 213 Labour, 102 Liberal Democrats. But there are also 26 bishops and 180 crossbenchers, as well as 38 supporters of other parties. Making a complete nonsense of his claims to want a roughly equal balance of forces between the two chambers, Cameron also proposes to appoint another 10 or so Lib Dems - which makes their presence completely disproportional, seeing how they only have eight MPs. About six Labour members will also be on the list, making a total of about 50 new peers.
According to some estimates, the size of the Lords could exceed 1,000 by 2020 - it is already the largest legislative assembly in the world outside China, currently costing £100 million a year to run. The Electoral Reform Society has calculated that appointing 50 more peers would add at least £1.3million a year in expenses and allowances. Restaurants, cafes and bars catering for the 783 lords, bishops and baronesses receive £1.3 million a year from the public purse. The average age of a peer is 70, while just two are under the age of 40, according to figures out last year. And only 25% are women.
Communists are utterly opposed to this anti-democratic outrage. We are also opposed to the sort of constructional tinkering recently advocated by Billy Bragg in the pages of The Guardian. He informs us that there is a “much simpler, cheaper and more legitimate way” of ensuring the membership of the upper house reflects the result of the general election (July 29). This involves, Bragg enthuses, dividing all the seats in direct proportion to the votes cast in the general election - a reform that would give your vote for the House of Commons a “second life”, as it would be tallied together with all the votes cast in your region to elect members of the new upper house from party lists (25 from each region or nation), creating a senate of 300 members.
In this way, he reasons, the “great conundrum of Lords reform” - how to ensure the primacy of the Commons - “would be achieved by indirect election”, giving members of the reformed upper house a “democratic mandate” that is “secondary” to that enjoyed by the directly elected members of parliament. Almost singing his conclusion, Bragg says “it’s time to hang up the ermine, send the placemen home and let the fresh air of democracy chase out the stale stench of patronage”.
Jeremy Corbyn too has called for a “proportionately represented, elected second chamber”, and a “constitutional convention to develop this process”. Meanwhile the late Tony Benn thought there was a case for a “national advisory committee to look at legislation and make recommendations”, which should be a “representative gathering of people from different parts of our society” - that naturally “would not be called Lords” or “enjoy any of the finery associated with that chamber”, and would somehow be “genuinely representative of experience and interests”.5
Communists fundamentally disagree with such ‘solutions’. Essentially, as we have argued many times before, they amount to rearranging the deckchairs. Yes, an elected second chamber might on the surface sound more attractive than one consisting of unelected, sozzled or semi-senile aristocrats, bishops and establishment toadies. But why do we want a second chamber at all? Communists, being principled democratic republicans, are unicameralists - we have no desire to slow down the machinery of government, or to prevent the stupid masses making the wrong choice.
Ultimately, capitalism is incompatible with thorough, consistent democracy - by definition it concentrates power in the hands of a small class, an unaccountable minority in society. Bicameralism is a part of that process, acting to obstruct democratic initiatives and impulses. We are opposed to elitism in all its guises, and recognise the necessity of the working class becoming the most militant and consistent advocate of democracy. Therefore we do not seek a ‘reformed’ or ‘democratic’ House of Lords - or some kind of elected second chamber. The whole damned thing - along with the monarchy, the standing army and unelected judicial power - should be scrapped l