Abolish the second chamber

This week's parliamentary debate on the future of the House of Lords is another episode in the Blairite saga aimed at revamping the United Kingdom's constitutional monarchy state, says Jim Moody

This week's parliamentary debate on the future of the House of Lords is another episode in the Blairite saga aimed at revamping the United Kingdom's constitutional monarchy state, making it more in tune with the requirements of 21st century capital.

On March 7 the Commons voted by a majority of 113 for the upper house to be completely elected. It also decided, by a majority of 38, for 80% to be elected, with the rest appointed - Tory leader David Cameron's preferred option. The decisions are consultative only, but Tony Blair's favoured 50-50 formula was defeated, so he will have to amend his plans.

The MPs also voted to remove the remaining 92 hereditary peers by a majority of 280. But all they were attempting to do was eliminate the most blatantly undemocratic elements of what will remain a deeply undemocratic setup, if the three main parliamentary parties have their way.

Previously, in February 2003, there had been a Commons vote to decide if the debate over reform of the Lords should also include consideration of whether to abolish it completely. This implied that those voting 'aye' were in favour of a single chamber, or at least believed the option ought not to be ruled out. Two Conservative MPs and three Lib Dem MPs joined 171 Labour MPs in voting for this motion. George Galloway was not among them.

Readers may remember that this was the 'train wreck' shambles of 2003, when MPs rejected every one of the various options for reform. A good number of those voting in 2003 for consideration of abolition are still MPs despite the intervening general election. If they have decided to lay low or change their position on abolition we have yet to hear why. Yet The Sunday Telegraph under the heading of 'A House divided: the options' blithely suggested: "Supporters of abolition: small number of Labour leftwingers" (March 4).

Clearly The Sunday Telegraph would for its own reasons ignore a significant recent move to have abolition of the House of Lords up for discussion. Among the putative abolitionists in 2003 were Hazel Blears (now a cabinet office minister), Nick Brown, Frank Dobson, John McDonnell, John Reid (now home secretary), Dennis Skinner, and Keith Vaz (now a member of the constitutional affairs committee). Yet despite the prominence of some of these MPs, the Commons was not presented with abolition of the House of Lords as one of this week's alternatives. A substantial political position has been swept aside regardless, creating a yawning democratic deficit, since the view on this question of around a third of the population is patently being ignored completely.

The Hansard Society entered the fray earlier this year by commissioning a public opinion poll from YouGov on the future composition of the Lords. Its subsequent report concentrated on the finding that the "vast majority want elections" rather than appointment for membership of the upper house, and it chose to downplay the fact that 33% of those asked were against having any second chamber at all (Hansard Society media release, February 21). This large minority implicitly shares the communist position, which is for a unicameral parliament, and therefore the abolition of any second chamber. This is part and parcel of our programme for extreme democracy: we want a democratic republic ruled by the working class.

But what of the rest of the left? Just as George Galloway appears to give constitutional matters of high politics little, if any, priority (certainly if his voting record is any measure), so the overwhelming majority of the left does the same. Carried in each issue of Socialist Worker in the 'What the Socialist Workers Party stands for' column, may be the statement that, "The structures of the present parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working class."

But there is currently no discussion in Socialist Worker's pages about high politics, including Blair's plans to change how we are ruled. There is plenty of printing ink used on hospital closures, various industrial disputes and other such good causes. Presumably our comrades see the question of democracy and the constitution as a diversion from what for them is the 'real' class struggle and 'real' politics.

The key questions are still not being asked, let alone answered, in any forum, mainstream or left. The idea that a second chamber is needed to provide checks and balances against the fully elected House of Commons is the consensus shared by most of the protagonists in the current public debate.

However, this is crucially the kind of democratic demand that communists make to expose the reactionary nature of the state that rules us and its supporters. The purpose of the Lords, or any second chamber, is to bog down and frustrate control from below. The bourgeoisie in Britain shows how divorced it is from genuine, consistent democracy by its opposition to what should be a shoe-in idea: removing the upper chamber not only as an unelected collection of lords, dukes and bishops, but removing it as a brake on the lower chamber, the House of Commons, whose directly elected members are more susceptible to political pressure from the masses.

Even were an upper chamber to be composed entirely of members who had been elected, its intended role would still be to ensure that the interests of the capitalist class and the stability of capital's system are paramount. In case the Commons gets above itself in terms of such considerations, the upper house would be there to have a second bite of the cherry and keep everything on an even keel. Yes, appointment of even a minority of members to an upper house is anathema to any idea of democratic accountability - but so is the very existence of that upper house in the first place.

Both the People's League to Abolish the Hereditary Legislative Chamber and the National League for the Abolition of the House of Lords were active, campaigning organisations a hundred years ago. The latter became associated in 1894 with the National Secular Society. But their opposition was restricted to hereditary privilege - which, though of course inherently anti-democratic, can relate only in part to an extreme democrat's reasons for demanding abolition.

Of course, the House of Lords was abolished under Cromwell in 1649, though the man himself was more neutral on its disappearance. The Act of Abolition commenced thus: "The Commons of England assembled in parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact, and be it ordained and enacted by this present parliament, and by the authority of the same, that from henceforth the House of Lords in parliament shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; and that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called the Lords' House, or in any other house or place whatsoever ..." (March 19 1649). From 1642 the Levellers' political programme had included abolition of the House of Lords, a secular republic, and yearly elections to parliament. However, the 1660 restoration of the monarchy also saw the reappearance of the House of Lords.

We have to look to the Chartists for the first thoroughgoing opposition in modern times to the whole principle of having a second chamber. Chartism took a wholly more radical attitude, precisely because it was a movement of the working class. While writers such as Tom Paine and Jeremy Bentham continued to argue for abolition of the House of Lords into the early 1800s, it was not until the mass movement around the Great Charter that there arguments began to have political clout.

As a young Engels noted in contrasting the non-abolition Radicals with Chartism, "The Chartists have a better idea of what they must do; they know that before the assault of a democratic House of Commons, the whole rotten structure - crown, Lords and so forth - must collapse of its own accord, and unlike the Radicals they therefore do not worry about the reform of the peerage" (F Engels, 'The condition of England' in Vorwärts! No75, September 18 1844). Chartists declared for responsive, annually elected parliaments, having no truck with the idea of a second chamber; parliamentary representatives were to be elected by secret ballot and (male) universal suffrage.

Like the Chartists of 170 years ago, communists call for the abolition of the Lords and for annual parliaments. Like the Chartists too, we are for the power to recall elected representatives, who should receive no more than the average skilled worker's wage. Crucially, we demand a democratic republic, in which the people have the right to bear arms and form militias for the purpose of defence and good order. We certainly oppose the standing army, MI5, MI6 and the whole oppressive apparatus of the secret state.

Such demands thoroughly expose our rulers' opposition to real democracy, and in doing so can firmly nail down another plank in the minimum programme of the most consistently democratic class, the working class.