Abolish the second chamber

T he 'democratic' credentials of all the establishment parties were exposed once again last week. Much to Tony Blair's delight, all seven options for the reform of the House of Lords were voted down in the Commons. And of course a proposal to abolish the Lords altogether was also defeated. The hypocrisy of both New Labour and the Tories would be astounding - if we had not come to expect it from these 'champions of democracy'. Blair, having previously committed himself and the Labour Party to a vaguely defined "more representative and democratic" House of Lords, was now proposing a totally appointed second chamber. The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had originally opposed any change to the previous composition - a combination of titled aristocrats, Church of England bishops and rewarded cronies - and fought tooth and nail to defend the 'rights' of every last hereditary peer to hold on to their seats, were now advocating an 80% elected upper house. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith had gone further, and had been campaigning for it to be fully elected. However, within three days of last week's debacle he announced that this new found 'principle' was now, just as quickly, to be abandoned. The fact that Blair had willingly allowed a free vote on what you might think would be regarded as a vital question of the British constitution demonstrates beyond doubt that he is quite happy with the status quo - all but the remaining 92 'hereditaries' are life peers, who owe their place to the system of patronage, where favours are repaid with a pretentious title, a handsome allowance and the right to sound off and attempt to block Commons decisions. Labour's Lord Lipsey is now to introduce a bill seeking the eventual removal of the hereditary peers. It is difficult to decide which of the two elements - patronage or heredity - is more despicable and anti-democratic. However, the truth is that even the call for a fully elected upper house, which was only defeated by 17 votes, would be designed, like all other variants, with the purpose of stalling, blocking or watering down progressive change. The second chamber is intended to provide checks and balances against democracy, against the possibility that a mass movement would force MPs to vote through legislation that threatens the ruling order and the system of capital itself. At first sight, then, the number of members who voted for total abolition was surprisingly high: although this was defeated by over 200 votes, 172 actually chose this option. However, just in case anyone had illusions in the apparent democratic commitment of these, mostly Labour, 'abolitionists', a good number of them promptly trooped into the division behind Blair and voted for the prime minister's right to stuff the Lords with 'Tony's cronies'. Genuine democrats demand not only the abolition of the second chamber, but a thoroughly accountable parliament, subject to annual election and with the right of electors to instantly recall and replace their representatives. The main function of parliament under the constitutional monarchy system is not to usher in democratic advance in the interest of the majority, but to defend the wealth, privilege and right to exploit and oppress currently enjoyed by the bourgeois minority. It acts at best as a rubber stamp for the decisions taken by the prime minister and his inner cabinet. Thus it is entirely possibly that 'president' Blair will attempt to launch a full-scale assault on Iraq without even going through the motions of a Commons vote. He will, however, require the accord of the queen, who of course has the constitutional power to dissolve parliament, appoint or dismiss the prime minister and confer or withhold royal assent. In fact what has been remarkable about the Lords charade is that in an extended period when the whole question of heredity and its relationship to democracy under capitalism has been in the limelight, with very few exceptions establishment politicians have run a mile from the same considerations when it comes to the monarchy. This is because, while the whole anti-democratic constitutional monarchy system can survive substantial tinkering - Lords reform, devolution, even proportional representation - the overall package must remain in place, with the monarch itself at its pinnacle. As part of our immediate programme we communists are for: * Abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber * Annual parliaments; accountable and recallable MPs * Separation of church and state * The right of self-determination in a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, and a united, federal Ireland * Election of the judiciary * Abolition of patronage and state secrecy. Peter Manson