Why everybody wants to keep the Lords
The Observer, Sunday 1 February 2009
Political philosophers from Plato to Rawls have imagined citizens drawing up constitutions. “Laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well-arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust,” recommended John Rawls, as he set out the guiding principles of 1971’s A Theory of Justice. Unsurprisingly, British politicians rarely reach his elevated level.
They do not change the constitution because it is unjust, but because they calculate that change is in their interests. Disraeli astonished his Tory supporters by extending the franchise. He realised, correctly, that conservatism could be made to appeal to the new shopkeeping and working-class voters. Labour devolved power to Scotland and Wales because it thought, wrongly, that they would always be one-party statelets under permanent Labour control.
Rigging the system is the blunt way of describing it. When the rigging coincides with accepted democratic principle, however, we do not call it “rigging” – we call it “reform”.
It is now clearly in Labour’s interests to rig the House of Lords. As the rigging would also coincide with liberal principles, we could get away with calling it “reform” as well.
I have never admired journalists who issue cocksure predictions of who will win which contest or what will happen to the country next; usually, they are smuggling in prejudices under the guise of impartial forecasts and pretending what they would like to happen inevitably must and will happen. Racing tipsters have more integrity. That said, virtually everyone who watches politics would be flabbergasted if Labour won the next election. As it heads out of power, Labour’s interest is in providing a platform for effective opposition. An elected House of Lords would be for them what the London mayoralty was for David Cameron – a base from which to attack Downing Street.
That alone with Lesotho in the democratic world we still have a second chamber with hereditary members, that uniquely in the democratic world we still have a second chamber that is not, in fact, democratic, but has members appointed for life, ought to be reason enough for allowing the voters to decide who should pass legislation in their name and at their expense.
In 1997, New Labour promised to modernise Britain. Belatedly, in March 2007, the Commons voted in favour of an elected upper house. After a week in which the press has caught Labour peers selling their services like mercenaries in Congo, it is easy to assume that Labour has failed to push the legislation through because the opportunities for patronage offered by an illegitimate second chamber have corrupted it.
And keeping the second chamber as it is has indeed allowed Labour to use seats in the Lords as prizes for mediocre loyalists and berths where Gordon Brown could park the unelected politicians he wants to bring into government.
The Lords has also been a cash machine. Just because the police could not prove to a criminal standard that this government, like the previous government, has been selling peerages does not stop Britain having a legislature where membership can be dependent on the ability to pay the governing elite. As researchers for the Conservative Bow Group put it after studying who got which gongs, “large Labour donors are 1,657 times more likely to receive an honour than a non-donor and 6,969 times more likely to receive a peerage”.
Beyond the specific scandals lies the greater outrage that the Lords would be a corrupt institution, even if every member behaved honestly. Its working premise that lawmakers can operate in a liberal democracy without being accountable at the ballot box is fraudulent per se.
But Labour is not failing to bring in an elected second chamber solely because power has corrupted it. Fear is as important an emotion. When the Commons voted overwhelmingly for a 100% elected house in 2007, the Lords voted overwhelmingly for a 100% appointed house. They, and men and women like them, must continue to have seats for life without the citizenry having the power to remove them.
Ministers fear that if they push ahead with democracy, peers will turn into oil refinery workers and paralyse government by going on strike. The wise heads say that it is better to back off and avoid having all their legislation rejected by Luddite lords. They forget the example of Disraeli and do not realise that if Labour does not reform the Lords in its interests, the Tories will do so in theirs.
Buried in Conservative policy pronouncements is a plan for a British version of the US Senate. Each county would elect three senators to a new upper house. It sounds a fair reform to the uninitiated, not least because it respects the voters’ local pride and sense of place. But Dorset will have the same number of senators as London, Shropshire the same as the West Midlands and Cumbria the same as Greater Manchester. As with the American Senate, rural and generally conservative voters will have a representation out of all proportion to their numbers.
I am not saying that Cameron will create a senate as soon as he takes office – with a wrecked economy, demoralised army and violence on the streets, the poor man will have far more pressing concerns. But when it looks as if the Tories will lose an election, they will move to make sure that the system suits them in opposition. So should Labour.
A final reason why all the brave talk of modernisation came to nothing was that it worked to ministers’ advantage to have a discredited second chamber. However well-grounded peers’ objections to a bill were, ministers could always say that an unelected opposition had no right to challenge the elected government.
Soon, Labour will be the opposition and surely it is time for it to tell the aristocrats and the quangocrats, the sinecurists and the placemen, the has beens and the never beens that Britain must be a democracy.
High-minded principles demand a decisive confrontation. So, too, does low political calculation.