Abolish the second chamber

While Blair pushes for a ‘modernised’ House of Lords, the working class must go further and champion the fullest democracy

Last week’s Tory split over the House of Lords provided a foretaste of the kind of deep divisions amongst the establishment that Blair’s constitutional revolution will provoke.

It is true that his far-reaching changes are being introduced from above. There is no great social movement from below - one that could oblige the bourgeoisie to seek to rule in a new way. On the contrary the working class is at present so docile that it does not exist at all in a political sense. Yet, even when all below is quiet, radical reform of the constitution will at the very least cause conflict at the top. That is why our class must be prepared - initially through propaganda - to take advantage of the establishment’s difficulties, and why it is essential for the left to break with its ingrained economism and recognise the vital importance of the struggle for democracy.

As any of the broadsheets will tell you, this is not the first time this century that reform of the Lords has been tried. As far back as 1911, following Lloyd George’s successful bid to reduce the powers of the upper house, more fundamental change was promised. It never happened. Labour made a half-hearted attempt to abolish hereditary peers in 1968. It failed. Hence throughout the 20th century the second chamber remained a bastion of reaction with an overwhelming inbuilt Tory majority.

The Tories fear that Blair’s project of remaking Labour as the permanent party of government in the form of Lab-Libism - and the constitutional ‘vandalism’ necessary to ensure it - opens up the possibility of British ‘subjects’ questioning the way they are ruled. If hereditary power is so archaic and undemocratic, then what about the monarchy itself and the whole constitutional monarchy system? To save themselves and old Britain from new Britain requires derailing Blair’s programme.

The House of Lords with its Tory majority has proved to be a very useful salient. This was admirably demonstrated by their lordships’ refusing five times to sanction Blair’s plans for electoral reform for next year’s European elections. The Tories may be impotent in the Commons, but Hague has to some extent been able to make up for that simply through issuing blocking instructions to his colleagues in the Lords.

Clearly Blair has an interest in putting an end to this state of affairs. If he could get away with it he would replace the chamber of Tory privilege with a chamber of Labour patronage. However, the events of the last week show that he was prepared to compromise.

A bloc of mainly Tory hereditaries will remain. Instead of pushing ahead with the immediate abolition of all 759 hereditaries, Blair offered a stay of execution for 91 of them. This would allow the most active to retain their cherished seats until stage two of the Lords reform was implemented, when many of them expect to find a place for themselves - through election or nomination, depending on the final structure of the reformed second chamber.

It was the fact of compromise that caused the rift between the party leader and Tory peers - Lord Cranborne was sacked supposedly because he did a secret deal with Labour behind Hague’s back. The divide between the two arms of Conservatism was amply illustrated by the support Hague won amongst MPs for his stance, while Tory peers overwhelmingly backed Cranborne.

When Hague sacked Cranborne, 80 out of around 100 Tory peers sided with their ousted leader in a meeting immediately afterwards. The entire front bench in the Lords offered to resign; four of them did anyway despite being asked to stay on by Hague; two backbenchers resigned from the party. Hague had to virtually beg Cranborne’s former deputy, Lord Strathclyde, to take over the job, yet he had himself been fully involved in Cranborne’s dealings. Strathclyde (full name - Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith) is himself a hereditary, and he insisted that the agreement struck by his predecessor - to cooperate in reducing the number of hereditaries to 91 in exchange for dropping plans to ditch the lot - is still on.

Cranborne clearly believed that Hague could be bounced into accepting the “extraordinary good deal”, which would have “made the prime minister eat his words” in pulling back from an immediate abolition of all hereditary voting rights. Cranborne was evidently speaking for the majority of peers when he said he would “rather do a deal than die gloriously”, and added: “My primary loyalty has to be to the House of Lords.”

But Hague had wanted them to make a “principled stand”. He was willing to fight to the last lord, and was still insisting last weekend: “It is wrong to destroy the independence of the House of Lords and replace it with a ‘house of cronies’.” Their “independence” is only from this government of course, not from party, class or individualistic interest. However, as The Daily Telegraph commented, the peers had “no stomach for a protracted struggle against the government’s legislative programme” (December 5).

The paper’s editorial of the same day backed the Conservative leader’s actions: “It cannot be proper to meddle with the upper house unless there is a specific and obviously better alternative on offer.” But it continued: “Mr Hague’s only real failing - and it is a serious one - was to have become so out of touch with his party in the Lords. He ought to have seen that the Tory peers were hankering after a deal. A commander is no better than his troops at the front.”

While the Telegraph has a straightforward and downright reactionary position - why “meddle” with something that is working so well? - Hague’s stance is highly contradictory and hypocritical in the extreme. He now claims - along with his entire shadow cabinet - to have been miraculously converted to the notion of an accountable second chamber, and is bringing forward to March next year the report from the semi-independent commission he set up, in order to beat Blair in the race to table proposals. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Labour is scurrying to find a chair for the official royal commission which will make stage-two recommendations for the second chamber’s structure and composition.

There can be no doubt that the Telegraph’s criticisms of Hague are well aimed. If he had read the mood of his peers, he could have embraced Cranborne’s deal and gloated over Labour’s retreat. Instead he ended up accepting Blair’s offer anyway, but succeeded in destroying his authority in the Lords in the process. It now looks most unlikely that he will be able to persuade the Tory peers to block government legislation, as he did with its European proportional representation bill. Indeed there is now a greater chance that New Labour will manage to bring in PR in time for the 1999 Euro elections. Hague’s strategy in therefore in crisis.

Revealingly, Tony Benn has been virtually alone on the Labour benches in criticism of Blair’s compromise. He claimed that there would be no further incentive to complete the reform, as both sides would be happy: the 91 most active hereditaries would be able to continue as before, while Blair would eventually be able to stuff the Lords full of cronies. However, the abandonment of stage two appears more and more unlikely, now that the Conservatives are paying lip service to reform.

What view should communists take of Blair’s reform of the second chamber? We do not belittle it as irrelevant to the working class because it “will not create a job, a hospital bed or a decent pension for anyone”, as does Andrew Murray in the ultra-economistic Morning Star (November 27). On the contrary communists want to take democracy way beyond the narrow confines of Blair’s revolution from above. The second chamber - whether it is partially elected (by direct franchise or electoral colleges), filled with nominees or contains elements of both - will have one purpose: to provide ‘checks and balances’ on democracy. It will help insure the ruling class against radical change from below.

While the bourgeoisie seeks to reform the Lords, communists and democrats demand the abolition of the second chamber, lock, stock and barrel. While the ruling class wants to phase out heredity from the Lords alone, we call for the immediate abolition of the whole constitutional monarchy system.

Jim Blackstock