Abolish the House of Lords

The rebellion in the House of Lords against a government amendment to equalise the age of consent for gays and heterosexuals demonstrates why the working class must become the champion of democracy

Democracy or the House of Lords? That was the question starkly posed last Wednesday when the Lords blocked an amendment to equalise the gay and heterosexual age of consent. Evoking their historic - and no doubt god-given - constitutional powers, the ultra-reactionaries and stone age bigots were prepared to sabotage the government’s ‘flagship’ Crime and Disorder Bill in order to retain the criminalisation of homosexual relations for under 18 year-olds. Of the 290 votes cast for deleting the amendment, 138 were made up of non-hereditary life peers, including Labour ones.

The honourable lords and ladies revealed their determination to oppose gay equality, no matter what the cost. Even if it meant wrecking Jack Straw’s authoritarian proposals on crime, which no doubt most of the upholders of law and order in the House of Lords thoroughly approve of. Former Tory cabinet minister Baroness Young led the anti-gay rebellion. Full of the milk of human sympathy, she explained that she had been “deluged” with letters from religious groups - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - and members of the public begging her to oppose the gay equality amendment. Naturally, she

“only stood on this issue because I care very much about young people. I would feel I was failing in my duty if I didn’t say that lowering the age of consent without proper parliamentary scrutiny would be wrong - constitutionally and in principle.”

The reactionary rebels clustered around Baroness Young were not just concerned with safeguarding “proper parliamentary scrutiny”. Young herself stated that equalising the age of consent would be “the thin end of the wedge” and that in her “ideal world” the age of consent for womenwould also be raised to 18. Lord Longford, aged 92, was very concerned about the sexual-emotional health of young boys, arguing: “If someone seduced my daughter it would be damaging and horrifying, but not fatal. She would recover. On the other hand, if some elderly or not so elderly schoolmaster seduced one of my sons and taught him to be a homosexual, he would ruin him for life.” Lord Stoddart, a Labour peer, proclaimed there could never be equality between gays and straights: “One is the natural order of things; the other is not. Indeed, if nature had intended otherwise, it would undoubtedly have constructed the human body differently.” These enlightened views were supported by the ‘libertarian’ Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan, the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the former chief rabbi, Lord Jakobovitz, who even argued that it was “undemocratic” for members of a minority (ie, gays and lesbians) to demand the same civil rights as the majority.

Unsurprisingly, Jack Straw is quite prepared to drop the age of consent amendment to his Crime and Disorder Bill rather than see it fall - unlike Mike Foster’s anti-fox-hunting bill, which has been allowed to die a natural death. Under British constitutional law, the Blair government cannot simply overturn the Lords decision because the relevant passage started its parliamentary life in the Lords. That means it cannot invoke the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to reverse the will of the Lords.

The House of Lords rebellion is not all bad news for Blair. Quite the opposite in some respects. By so openly flaunting their absurd prejudices and anti-democratic inclinations, the Lords have played into Blair’s hands. Part of his ‘New Labour, New Britain’ project entails extensive constitutional reform, one plank of which is the scrapping of hereditary peers. That would at a stroke wipe out the massive inbuilt Tory majority in the Lords. Of course, Blair’s ‘anti-aristocratic’ plans have nothing to do with a burning desire to introduce democracy, but rather to stuff the House of Lords with his own appointed life peers - ie, cronies and yes-men. To replace an inbuilt Tory majority with an inbuilt New Labour one.

It is undoubtedly true that the stuffed-shirts, ex-colonels and bishops in the Lords are cocking a snook at the increasing bourgeois consensus which believes gays and lesbians should have equality before the law. A large section of the bourgeoisie wants ‘anti-homophobia’ to be as universally accepted as anti-racism, which is now official state ideology.

Communists and socialists demand the immediate abolition of the House of Lords. No hereditary peers. No life peers. Nor do we favour “a wholly elected revising second chamber … made up of councillors from every European constituency, as now constituted, to replace the House of Lords, with no change at all in its powers”, as argued by Tony Benn (The Guardian July 24). We support a unichamber assembly elected on the basis of proportional representation.

The CPGB also calls the abolition of the age of consent. The state should have no right to interfere in the bedroom or lay down when individuals are ‘ready’ to have sex - gay or straight, boys or girls, men or women. 

In this regard we must make clear our criticism of the strategy pursued by Peter Tatchell and Outrage. With the latter we are a very long way indeed from the 1960s radicalism of the Gay Liberation Front. Outrage adopts an ultra-reformist policy, which seeks to pressurise the House of Lords, instead of calling for its immediate abolition. (If the House of Lords had voted for the equalisation of the age of consent, would Outrage have celebrated with the good lords and ladies?) Tatchell has already announced that when and if the age of consent is equalised to 16, he will then campaign for it to be lowered again to 14. What a hopeless method. A method essentially antithetical to human freedom, in that looks to those above to introduce ‘sexual liberation’ one tiny step at a time.

It is a grim indictment of most of the British left that virtually no organisation openly calls for the abolition of the age of consent. The Socialist Party welcomed the previous decision of the House of Commons to equalise the age of consent (unlike the now very ‘gay-friendly’ SP, the old Militant Tendency treated with macho contempt all manifestations of gay politics). The Socialist Workers Party has kept mum - or safe - on the issue.

You can guarantee that some left groups will consider such campaigns as, at best, a diversion  from the class struggle and ‘real’ politics. At a recent CPGB special meeting on the transitional programme, a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Mark Osborn, mocked a CPGB May 7 election address in Manchester because it called for the abolition of the age of consent. He labelled it the “Moss Side disaster”. Perhaps the AWL comrade is correct: the CPGB mighthave a got a few more votesif it had dropped all the awkward and controversial political stuff. The suspicion is that the AWL comrades think that the CPGB, and the left in general, should dump all this airy-fairy stuff about gays, drugs and workers’ militias, and concentrate exclusively on ‘bread and butter’ trade unionist politics like wages, defending the NHS and fighting for jobs.

This has produced a vicious economistic circle. The fact that the left has historically refused to champion democratic struggles such as those for gay rights has in turn resulted in the depoliticisation of many oppressed groups in society. Inevitably this breeds separatist and individualistic sentiments. So many in the gay community look to the ‘pink pound’ for salvation rather than collective working class action.

An even more serious omission has been the left’s failure to prioritise democratic demands which go to the heart of the bourgeois state. Abolition of the Lords and the monarchy are tucked away like optional extras at the bottom of a long list of economic campaigning points. Yet a movement from below which places these central democratic questions at the top of its agenda could begin to challenge capital’s hegemony in a revolutionary way. The left needs a new, democratic, truly inclusive vision, one committed to self-liberation.

The House of Lords’ reactionary rebellion presents the Socialist Alliances with a golden opportunity. They should start an energetic and imaginative campaign which not only fights to abolish the Lords but calls for the sweeping away of the constitutional monarchy itself.

Eddie Ford