House of Lords House of Lords. Photo: UK Parliament / YouTube / CC BY 3.0, license linked below article

Labour’s proposal to abolish the House of Lords is a damp squib that falls short of the democratic changes we need, argues John Westmoreland

Keir Starmer’s announcement that the next Labour government will abolish the House of Lords has been met with scorn from the right and left. His announcement was replete with Blairite euphemisms about empowerment, such as the aspiration to go ‘higher, wider, better’. The Labour right has added a whole new dimension to the meaning of vacuity, and the pumped-up rhetoric Starmer uses is sure to draw flak on the road to the next election.

At one point, Starmer, keen to show how radical he is, got carried away enough to proclaim that his proposed reforms would lead to: ‘An economy placed directly in the hands of working people.’ Yet, in the very next sentence he said (with a straight face) that he didn’t think redistributing wealth was the answer! Clearly the empowerment of the working class and the trade unions is not really what Starmer is about.

An insult to democracy

Labour’s plans are based on a report from a team led by Gordon Brown, The Commission on the UK’s Future, that includes the headline-grabbing statement that the House of Lords is ‘indefensible’.

Socialists have been saying this for over two hundred years, and it would have been nice if Sir Keir had acknowledged the debt. Tom Paine, the Chartists, and socialists ever since have wanted constitutional reform that placed political power in the hands of the producers.

The House of Lords has always acted as the political gatekeeper for landed wealth and capital, a check on the limited democracy of the House of Commons. Of the 786 sitting members in the Lords there are 91 hereditary peers, who, along with Conservatives and Crossbench life peers make up the majority. The Lords are there by appointment, not merit, as their defenders claim, and peerages are often given as a gift for favours by the sitting Prime Minister. One of the most notorious examples was Boris Johnson raising his friend, and the son of an ex-KGB colonel, Evgeny Lebedev, to the Lords after attending a lavish weekend bash at a palazzo in Perugia in 2018.

The Lords’ place in the British constitution is also to act as the defender of monarchy. The monarchy is the ultimate symbol of landed wealth and is the beneficiary of hereditary power and privilege. The King’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament is delivered to the Lords rather than the House of Commons. The whole archaic shemozzle is supposed to overawe us with the weight of British constitutional heritage, and it is there to show graphically that, in the UK, there are set limits to democracy. Workers keep out!

The case against the House of Lords is particularly relevant at the moment. The most democratic institutions in the country – the trade unions – are restrained and shackled by anti-union legislation, and their members suffer a democratic deficit that has enabled and encouraged private companies to take over and colonise our public services.

So keeping the House of Lords is indeed ‘indefensible’. Yet, these age-old socialist arguments never got a single mention from Starmer. He understands that constitutional reform that starts to challenge the political rights of the wealthy and privileged is ultimately republican and socialist.

Damp squib

At Monday’s announcement, and in the interviews that preceded it, Starmer was keen to be seen as a politician with values, values that the electorate would admire. At last he could shed the image of a stuffed shirt: someone that nobody has a clue what he stands for. But his big announcement was underwhelming.

One of the objectives of Labour’s proposals is to end the disintegration of the not-so-United Kingdom by finding our ‘shared values’. But, so far, MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have universally declared it a ‘damp squib’. It is not difficult to see why.

Starmer wants to replace the House of Lords with an upper house of nations and regions. This would be a place where representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could meet with those from regional councils to discuss common issues. He frames this as ending the overly centralised Westminster system of politics and administration and giving a ‘voice to the people’.

The problem with this is that the United Kingdom already has devolved parliaments. It would not make sense to give up national powers for something that would work as a forum for discussion. For example, the changes would see devolved powers to deal with housing, education and transport. This might be relevant to regions where the Tories’ Levelling Up agenda is a dead duck, but the devolved parliaments already have these powers.

The job of the new second chamber would still be to scrutinise the laws passed in the Commons. The fact that the new chamber will be elected within a political system dominated by the Tweedledum and Tweedledee two-party set up is hardly going to impress voters who want real change, and have a low opinion of politicians generally. Although the proposals, including banning MPs from having second jobs, can be seen as an attempt to clean up the UK’s standing as a democracy, it won’t stop MPs from serving partisan corporate interests, especially as business is to have a central role in the devolved powers.

Despite all Starmer’s bluster about giving the people a voice, the thinking behind his big idea is still business-led. The devolution of powers has, since Tony Blair started the process, always been about letting businesses make decisions about the local economy. For example, the mayoral system that was forced on towns like Doncaster, was, in the words of Blair, ‘to fast track change’. This has meant by-passing democracy and increasing the power of the executive. These executive powers have been used to promote academies in education and the marketisation of other public services.

The agenda for Starmer is much the same as Blair’s. He wants to see three hundred ‘economic clusters’ that would ‘boost growth and release talent’. For example, Bath and Bristol would develop as centres for creative culture. It is more naïve neoliberal guff that eulogises business as the way to release talents and fulfil aspirations, summed up in the vacuous promise of a ‘fairer, greener future’.

Workers’ democracy

Democracy is the most misused word under capitalism. The capitalist class lives in dread of real democracy where the workers have power over the economy. There is a wall of legislation standing between the working class and political power. That’s why Starmer’s big idea is not worth the paper it is written on.

Of course, in between now and the election, we will be forced to aim our fire on the Tory defenders of the current set up. We have already heard from the Tories about how the Lords has a body of expertise that has been used to make our laws work. This argument is based on the age-old assumption that rich people must be cleverer than we are and therefore we need them to lead us. But we are clever enough to see that the Lords rubber stamped legislation that has slashed benefits, shackled trade unions and proscribed the right to demonstrate. We are also clever enough to note that if we are going to abolish the House of Lords, we should also abolish the usage of noble titles – lords, knights etc. – all used to sanctify wealth and the rights of the Crown.

And let’s not pretend either that the House of Commons is a form of democracy that is capable of making radical change in favour of the working class. MPs swear an oath to the Crown, not the people, and we have no right of recall when sitting MPs betray their promises to the electorate. In 2010, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems promised students that they would abolish tuition fees if elected. With no outright winner in the election, Clegg was delighted to be invited to prop up David Cameron’s Tories. Clegg abandoned his election pledge to the NUS immediately.

The working class needs political power and a democracy that works for the majority. We are the only truly democratic class. We value cooperation over the chaos of the competitive market. We know that teams are better than firms, and we are the class with the vital sense of social solidarity needed to be inclusive and without prejudice. The strikes in which many workers are taking part show us the power we have to make change. And all we seek is natural economic and social justice.

Abolish the Lords by all means, but we have to go further. Much further.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.