Ukip blocked by a cynical Cameron
Contrary to the expectations of many on the left, writes Eddie Ford, the winds of change in British politics are blowing to the right
On August 1 the government announced the creation of 30 new peerages. This brings the total membership of the House of Lords to 838, though currently 53 peers are on “leave of absence” or otherwise disqualified from sitting.1 (By comparison, the elected House of Commons has a relatively paltry 650 members). As it so happens, there are only 400 seats in the Lords chamber, but this disparity never causes a problem because most peers do not regularly attend sessions - if they ever bother turning up at all.
The most notable ermined new entrant is Jenny Jones, London Assembly member, former chair of the Green Party and also former deputy mayor of London. She becomes the first ever Green Party member to become a peer. Another appointment is Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered Stephen Lawrence, who is to become a Labour peer. A Labour source described her as a “hero of modern Britain”.
All the rest are the usual suspects of ex-ministers and dubious business people - such as Sir Anthony Bamford, the chairman and managing director of the JCB empire, now rewarded for being one of the Tory Party’s major donors: his associated companies have handed over £4.7 million and in 2010 provided David Cameron with helicopter and private plane travel. Similarly, Howard Leigh, property businessman and Conservative Party treasurer, is elevated to the ‘other place’ - being a major donor to the value of £219,000. John ‘three parties’ Horam also becomes a peer - he is distinguished for his successive membership of Labour, the short-lived Social Democratic Party and now the Tories. Slightly curiously, Richard Balfe, a former Labour MEP, becomes David Cameron’s personal “envoy to the trade unions”. And Chris Holmes, a non-executive director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who is described by some as the Sebastian Coe of the London Paralympics, also joins the Tory benches in the Lords. Very PC and right on. Overall, the new intake consists of 14 Tories, 10 Liberal Democrats, five Labour and one Green.
Cameron has claimed that the “tilt” in the balance of appointments towards the coalition merely reflects the constitutional expectation to try to make the Lords “more closely mirror the result” of the last general election - the Tories now have 28% of the peers in the Lords, he said, even though they received 36% of the popular vote at the 2010 general election. Others would less generously say that he is trying to pack the Lords full of his supporters in a manner reminiscent of Tony Blair, who appointed 114 Labour peers and only 42 Tories between 1997 and 2001. Taking into account the new peers announced on August 1, Cameron has created 64 Conservative and 44 Labour peers in the lifetime of this parliament. More generally, since 2007 there has been a net gain of 27 peers in total after deaths, resignations and expulsions.
Anyhow, the appointments mean that the Conservatives become the largest party in the Lords with 222 peers, while Labour has 221 and the Liberal Democrats 99, giving the two coalition parties a 100 majority over Labour. The other peers consist of bishops (‘lords spiritual’), crossbenchers, non-affiliated and “other parties” (Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionist Party, Democratic Unionist, Conservative Independent, etc).
But where are the new UK Independence Party peers? Or at least, this has been the long-standing protest - and demand - from Nigel Farage. At the moment, Ukip has two peers by virtue of the fact that Malcolm Pearson (Baron Pearson of Rannoch) and David Verney (21st Baron Willoughby de Broke) both defected from the Tories to Ukip in January 2007. Furthermore, David Stevens (Baron Stevens of Ludgate) in September 2012 joined Ukip, but for obscure reasons stills formally sits as an independent Conservative.
Farage has a point, as far as it goes. In terms of popular support, Ukip is currently far ahead of the Greens. Where they stood in this year’s May local elections, Ukip candidates averaged over a quarter of the vote and overall picked up 23% of votes cast. Not only that: Ukip gained 139 councillors, retained another eight, and has 11 MEPs. Nor should we forget that its candidate, Richard Elvin, knocked the Tories into third place in the South Shields by-election, picking up 24.2% of the vote - not something the Greens can exactly boast about.
Rubbing salt into the Ukip wound, under the terms of the coalition agreement David Cameron and Nick Clegg agreed to make the Lords “reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”2. Something seemingly reaffirmed during a parliamentary debate on January 8 of this year, when Clegg declared that Lords appointments will be made “according to the proportion of votes won by parties at the last general election” - and this is “precisely what we intend to do”. Given that Ukip secured one million votes (3%) in the 2010 general election, then it should be ‘entitled’ to about 23 peers, as opposed to the mere two it has now. Indeed, Lord Pearson has written two letters to Cameron expressing Ukip’s frustration.3 The second letter tried to strike another deal by saying Ukip would settle for “another half a dozen” peers rather than the 23 they should be due.
Well, on August 1 Cameron finally responded - definitely no deal with the party he described not so long ago as a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies”. Farage furiously denounced this “insult to democracy”, which puts the UK “on a par with a developing world country dictatorship”. Even if you are not a Ukip supporter, he continued, the “injustice here is apparent”.
The official position is that, while the Greens have an elected Westminster MP in the shape of Brighton’s Caroline Lucas, Ukip has none. A position reinforced with dark references to ‘extremists’. If Ukip were given peers on the basis of the number of votes gained in an election it would inevitably mean seats for the British National Party. Yet this is not a convincing argument either, seeing how the BNP is dying on the vine, torn between its doomed ‘turn to respectability’ and the primal (and equally hopeless) desire of some BNPers for a ‘return to the streets’ following the Woolwich killing. In the end, the only conclusion you can reasonably come to is that the Tories’ gut anti-democratic instincts are kicking in - determined to keep a deadly rival out of the parliamentary club.
Of course, the fact that the debate over Lords representation and proportionality has focused so much on Ukip tells us something important about the period we are in - bleak though that may be. The winds of change in this country, insofar as there are any, are blowing to the right. This runs contrary to the dogmatic expectations of some on the British far left, who assumed that the economic crisis and the austerity regime would automatically lead to a growth in their ranks. To paraphrase an old slogan - first mass social despair, then us. But in reality the only significant development in British politics has been the rise of Ukip, not the left, which is almost nowhere to be seen - the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is no more than a joke and, as things stand now, many in the leadership of Left Unity seem determined to repeat the same old ‘broad party’ mistakes that wrecked the Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and Respect.
Some may try to delude themselves that the Ukip vote in May was purely a protest vote and will dissolve with the mist. But the vast majority of these people knew exactly what they were buying into - which was a brand of noxious rightwing populism, Ukip ultimately being part of a broader phenomenon in politics, whether in Europe or the United States. A movement that combines xenophobic national chauvinism - especially a withering contempt for migrants - with a reactionary, populist hatred of the out-of-touch liberal political establishment.
We are where we are with the peerage system because all attempts at reform, no matter how cosmetic, have been stymied. Way back in the glory days of 2010 Nick Clegg gave the Tories what they needed, a coalition government, in return for their agreement to a package of constitutional reform - which, according to a boastful Clegg, was going to be the “greatest” since 1832. Please howl with laughter now. Rather, it has been a complete failure for the Liberal Democrats - an omnishambles. No Lords reform, no AV voting, no reduced House of Commons or boundary reform, the latter blocked by Clegg himself in revenge for the ‘no’ vote in the AV referendum. Nothing to show except a fixed-term parliament, which at least has the merit of removing the ability to set the timing of an election from the sitting government.
Meanwhile, the Lords are inexorably expanding like an unwanted waistline. The current size of the chamber is a post-1999 high and is 172 more than 13 years ago. In the words of the Electoral Reform Society, the 30 new members are the latest additions to an “increasingly bloated” chamber, ERS research indicating that the total number of peers could rise to nearly 1,000 by the end of the current parliament. Katie Ghose of The Guardian even fears that the number could reach 2,000 after the next general election.4 But, whatever numbers we are talking about, it is more than obvious that the Lords appointment process gives huge patronage power to the prime minister - being inherently corrupting and anti-democratic.
Communists therefore call for the total abolition of the House of Lords, not for it to be reformed or ‘modernised’. Not for us the reactionary dreams of The Daily Telegraph, which hoped that Doreen Lawrence can make the Lords “relevant again”, or its elitist yearning for a “group of men and women who can make judgements on legislation without fear of a fickle electorate” (August 2).
The fundamental point is that, partly elected or not, even wholly elected, the House of Lords will continue to impose ‘checks and balances’ against democracy. Just imagine a scenario where members of the Lords are put in place by the same electorate that voted for MPs (even if by a different electoral method) - then what exactly are they supposed to be doing that ‘ordinary’ MPs cannot? There is no rhyme or reason to elect a second bunch of representatives just to oversee the work of the first bunch. After all, a single chamber can set up its own various specialist committees empowered to examine the detail of proposed legislation and recommend changes - there is no need for an ‘other place’. At the very best, it just produces endless gridlock - as we have seen over and over again in the US.
In reality, the existence of a second chamber acts to frustrate the popular will - to dampen down and becalm the democratic impulses of the masses. Keep things nice and orderly. Good grief, if you did not have a second chamber, then almost anything could happen - and that would never do, would it? Yes, of course, there is the ‘death penalty’ argument - that is, without a delaying second chamber then we might see legislation to reintroduce the death penalty rushed through parliament. Or bring back public floggings and corporal punishment at schools (if it has ever gone away).
No-one should be duped by this anti-democratic scare tactic. Backward and reactionary ideas tend to originate from despairing feelings of powerlessness. Feelings of atomisation and alienation. The greater the sense of powerlessness, the more anti-social sentiments and reactionary ideas will flourish. Instead, communists demand the abolition of the second chamber and the monarchy - fight for real, effective, consistent and extreme democracy. Which by definition can only mean a ruthless struggle against capitalism. There can be no socialism without democracy, just as there can be no real democracy without socialism.
1. www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/lords/composition-of-the-lords (as of June 8 2013).
3. The Huffington Post August 1: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/08/01/nigel-farage-ukip-house-of-lords_n_3688858.html.
4. The Guardian August 1.