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House of Lords

The Queen in the House of Lords (image: Alastair Grant/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Tories' tax credits debacle in the upper chamber is just the latest episode in the continuing crisis of democratic legitimacy, writes Alastair Stephens

Not satisfied with the calling an unnecessary and damaging (for them) EU referendum the Tories have now contrived to bring upon themselves two more such self inflicted crises. Both stem from their decision to cut Tax Credits to three million of the country’s poorest families.

This is a real political crisis for them. It is both massively unpopular and a betrayal of their pre-election promises. Its hobbling also leaves a hole in Osborne's fiscal plans.

By voting for transitional arrangements though the Lords have also precipitated a constitutional crisis.It has dragged into the centre of politics a question which the two big parties have hitherto contrived to avoid: the House of Lords and its undemocratic role in our not very democratic constitution.

The words 'constitutional crisis' tend to set the pulses racing of few but political pundits and anoraks. However this really shouldn't be so. The constitution is about the way we are governed and the political choices which are open to society. Britain’s unwritten constitution has for two centuries acted to minimize these choices and insulated the powers-that-be from popular control.

Crises tend to throw these arrangements into question, and open up the possibility of change. This crisis which should be was an opportunity to move closer to the final sweeping away of such antediluvian institutions as the House of Lords. The political crisis sparked by the Scottish referendum continues and deepens.

Their Lordships are not content

We all welcome the blocking of the Tories threatened cuts to Tax Credits. It is more an expression of popular will than anything that has happened in the Commons since the May.

We also cannot but wonder at the absurdity of it all.

That such a defeat for these cruel cuts should happen in a chamber chaired by a woman who sits on a big bag of wool, and where the government was condemned by archbishops (known as the Lords Spiritual) all dressed up in their best ecclesiastical garb, seems somewhat anachronistic.

The Tories are proclaiming the vote against tax credits to be a constitutional outrage. It is, they say, a break with constitutional convention, and of course much of our constitution is made up of such conventions.

This particular one, dating back some 200 years, was that the House of Lords should not reject government money bills. They could reject outright a Budget but not amend it. It was a tradition the Lords stuck to until the Tory-dominated Lords rejected the so-called "People's" Budget", put forward by Herbert Asqiuith's Liberal government in 1909.

It was the first deliberately and declaredly redistributive Budget aimed at transferring a very modest amount of wealth from the rich to the poor. The government also had a huge majority having crushed in the Tories in a landslide only three years earlier. That the Tories should choose the budget to break a long standing convention tells you everything about what the Tories are really like, and how little they changed since the days when they wore top hats and tails to the Commons.

The Liberals went to the country over the issue and the Tories lost. A Bill was then brought forward to prevent the Lords from blocking laws passed by the Commons for more than two years and to stop all blocking of finance bills.

When the Lords voted against this too the Liberal government asked the King to create hundreds of new peers to outvote the Tories if they did not relent. He said 'yes' and the Tories' bluff was called. The backwoodsmen lost their nerve and the Parliament Act passed onto the statute books in 1911.

Always a Tory House

So a bitter irony it is now that Cameron should apparently threaten the creation of a hundred or more Tory peers to get the Tories' legislation through.

This reversal of roles has been brought about by Corbyn's victory and the move by the the Labour party  to start acting like an opposition. But the government defeat was made possible by the fact that for the first time ever the Tories do not have a majority in the House of Lords.

Westminster claims to be the Mother of Parliaments, but its upper house, has had a permanent built in majority for one party: the one which has represented the most reactionary elements of the rich and the powerful.

Despite numerous changes of government, electoral swings either way, and at points major restructuring of the party system, the Tories has continued to dominate the House of Lords. This is unsurprising as it has was mostly made up of, rather than elected representatives, or even politicians, wealthy landowners whose ancestors had at one time or another been of use to the King.

Whenever they Tories wanted to block anything all they need do is call in the so-called backwoodsmen from their estates to sit in a house they had little familiarity with, to vote on subjects they knew nothing about and had few views on other than the prejudices of their class.

Thus the Lords have either blocked, grievously delayed or fundamentally altered virtually every progressive reform ever proposed in this country. These unelected grandees repeatedly frustrated the will of the elected House of Commons.

The damage they so did should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most egregious example is the way they wrecked, on three occasions, attempts to grant Home Rule to Ireland, something which had overwhelming support there. The result was decades of violence, partition and sectarian hatred which lasts until this day. The red benches of the Lords could well stand for the blood of all those who have perished in the many rounds of the Troubles.

This ability to prevent change, along with an inherent love of privilege, is the main reason that the Tories have so fanatically opposed any reform of the Lords. It thus caused them to sabotage the Lib Dems' modest proposals under the late Coalition Government.

Culling the backwoodsmen

Having repeatedly in history used the upper house to frustrate the will of the Commons the Tories now in outrage  proclaim that the elected lower house should have supremacy over the unelected Lords. The question though of why an unelected chamber, and one modeled on an assembly of feudal landowners, should even should even still exist in the 21stCentury, is simply ignored.

In fact what their Lordships have, in blocking Tax Credits, done is entirely within their powers to do. The opposition claim not inaccurately that what the Tories had put to the house was not primary legislation and so outside of the convention.

This hardly really matters. Convention only exists until someone decides to defy it as the Tories did in 1910. It can be changed at will as the Tories have done when it has suited them. The Tory complaints are nothing but sour grapes.

But their shock is understandable. They have been defeated in a house where they have had a majority as long as their have been parties in parliament.

Blair's government backed off making any positive changes to the House of Lords. But it made one negative one. It deprived all but 100 hereditary peers of the right to vote there. It swept away the absurdity that people may sit in a parliament and make laws merely because, for instance, a long dead ancestor was the illegitimate offspring of a King.

This still left some 800 peers made up of, apart from the lucky 100 and the Lords Spiritual (another absurdity, the Bishops of state religion, the Church of England), the life peers, appointed by various governments over the years.

Democracy it hardly represents, but removing the "back woodsmen" from the rolls the Tories were at a stroke deprived of their centuries old majority. This was of little importance and hardly changed a thing the whilst New Labour was in power and mostly passed legislation which either the Tories and or Lib Dems supported. Nor did it matter during the Coalition when the Tories along with their Lib Dem lackeys  had a crushing majority.

A hostile house

However, this year’s election changed all that.

The Lib Dems having been thoroughly shafted by the Tories, are out for revenge. Their very existence also depends on it. They are on the edge of extinction and unless they differentiate themselves from the Tories they could be pushed over it.

The change of leadership in Labour has also caused that party  to start vigorously contesting the Tories and putting the needs of millions of working class people ahead of the antediluvian traditions of the Palace of Westminster. Neither party has any reason to let controversial Tory legislation through the Lords. The Tories have never had such qualms about voting down government bills.

The bogus veil of convention has been caused aside as the question has become one of democratic legitimacy. The Tories barely have a leg to stand on on this. Proclaiming the superior democratic credentials of the Commons is impressing no one. In fact, unelected as it is, the Upper House is actually looking rather more like an expression of popular will than the Commons.

The Tories have a (tiny) majority in the Commons, and on this basis formed an all-Tory government, despite getting only 37% of the vote (which represents just 25% of voters, the low turnout itself being a function of the undemocratic nature of our voting arrangements). At the other end of the scale of misrepresentation the Lib Dems, who got 8% of the votes won 1% of the seats and the Greens, who took 4% of the vote won 0.15% of the seats.

The Lords looks rather more like a reflection of voting in May than the Commons. The Tories have 30% of members, Labour 27%, the Lib Dems 13%. The remaining 21% of the house is made up of so-called cross-benchers, peers not aligned to any party.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. This chamber rejected a deeply unpopular proposal, and one which the government did not put forward at the polls only five months ago.

Hung by their own petard

The Tories  have now been caught out by their own blocking of reform a House of Lords. They have no way of regaining their majority other than creating hundreds of new Tory peers, an act that would probably destroy all public tolerance of it. Even that young fogey Jacob Rees Mogg recognises that this would bring the Lords into "disrepute".

The Tories are thus in a quandary. They coalesced as the party in the 19th century around the defence of the constitutional status quo, hence their name. They resisted (with sole exception in 1868) every move towards a more democratic constitution.

Resistance to democratic reform and the unconditional defence of privilege is in the Tories’ DNA. Even if they wanted to, how could the Tories reform the Lords? What would they do? A second chamber elected by the same method as the first would an be obvious nonsense.

But one elected by anything other than First Past The Post (or AV, the system the system they trashed in the referendum of 2011) would look more democratic than the Commons. (It and would also be highly unlikely to ever have a Tory majority.) It would then be in a position to challenge the Commons, especially if, as would be likely, they had different majorities.

For gridlock to be avoided the Commons too would have to be reformed. And this is why neither of the main parties have ever seriously grappled with reform of the Lords.

The Tories' commitment to the present set p is total. Without the present arrangements in the Commons Thatcherism would never have been possible, and is this why her counter revolution has never been emulated on the Continent. And the House of Lords has always been a guarantee that they would have a veto over, or an ability to tinker with any reforms brought in by the left.

And this is the real fear of the Tories. The parliament of Commons and Lords, First Past The Post and an unelected upper house, has grievously restricted the democratic choices of the British people since the advent if mass politics 150 years ago. Long they wish this to continue.

Their misfortune is our opportunity

Thirty years of neo-liberalism and the Great Recession have greatly undermined the popular legitimacy of the British political system, a system which enjoyed rather more of it than it should have done.

This is the similar crises are being played out across the advanced capitalist countries. The way this is being played out here is unique to this country. The Tories' House of Lords' woes are just the latest episode in this continuing drama.

Let us not miss our opportunity to speed the unraveling of the whole anti-democratic  farago.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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