Never mind the little people, lobby a lord!
By appealing to those unelected chaps in the House of Lords, the TUC has shown just what it thinks of democracy.
A new campaign called ‘Adopt a Peer’ is not an attempt to find homes for Britain’s abandoned Lords and Baronesses. It is in fact the latest initiative from the UK’s national trade union body, the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The aim of this unlikely titled scheme is to encourage trade union members and affiliates to take their opposition to the current Health and Social Care Bill into parliament itself – not by lobbying MPs in the fully elected House of Commons, but by lobbying peers in the upper, unelected chamber, the House of Lords. While the effectiveness of such a tactic is doubtful, it certainly reveals a lot about the TUC. This is a body that claims to be the ‘voice of Britain at work’. Yet the fact that it has resorted to encouraging members to defend their interests by pleading to the unelected says a lot about the desperate, undemocratic nature of trade unionism today.
In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, revolutionary Tom Paine described the House of Lords as the ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers’. Alongside the monarchy, the Lords is as an ‘ancient tyranny’, said Paine, existing to keep a check on the democratically elected House of Commons, ‘on whose virtue depends the freedom of England’.
The Lords has undergone many reforms since Paine’s time, but the ‘tyranny’ at its heart remains. While today’s peers may have gained their seats in the upper chamber by providing funding or favours to the political elite rather than by virtue of having been born an aristocrat, they still perform the role of acting as a ‘check and balance’ on democratic politics. The Lords’ function is clear: to prevent the fickle masses from getting their way without first obtaining the approval of our superiors.
That such an institution still exists to block the will of our elected representatives – which it has done over 400 times in the past decade and 21 times since the formation of the coalition government last year – is an affront to democracy. It is telling, therefore, that the TUC has launched a high-profile campaign encouraging its 6.8million members and affiliates to write to assorted peers asking them to review the government’s health and social care reforms, which were yesterday passed by the House of Commons with a majority of 65.
The TUC’s pragmatic logic is simple: the Lords now carry ‘the responsibility for the future of our NHS’. As the upper house will soon review the bill, it ‘could be an opportunity to get the changes we need to stop or alter the bill’s measures, which could break up and sell off parts of our health service’, says the TUC. Lobbying a lord, it believes, is likely to be more effective, as these unelected cronies ‘aren’t as used to individual lobbying as MPs, so receiving personal contacts from members of the public should really get their attention’.
To get around the problem that peers do not actually have a constituency, if you enter your email address into the TUC’s ‘Adopt a Peer’ website then you will be randomly allocated a lord to send a pleading letter to. I had a go at this myself and, having inputted my details, was promptly allocated ‘Baron Prescott of Kingston upon Hull in the County of East Yorkshire’, aka former New Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott. Why contact an elected MP with your concerns when you can contact an ex-MP who no longer represents anyone?
The exercise has been taken up enthusiastically by many individuals, notably Labour supporters and left-wing organisations. The fact that these campaigners are ultimately appealing to the ‘tyranny’ of the House of Lords seems to have been overlooked. There are no democratic principles at stake here, it seems. The question for ‘Adopt a Peer’ campaigners, as one writer puts it in the Guardian, is simply whether ‘they can make a difference’.
We are encouraged to see ‘adopting a peer’ as a fun gimmick, like ‘adopting a donkey from a donkey sanctuary’, one supporter has tweeted. Others tweet with amusement about which peer they’ve been allocated (‘I got Baroness Young of Old Scone’, exclaims one. ‘She sounds delicious. I have high hopes.’) One blogger likens ‘adopting a peer’ to owning a digital pet: ‘It’s like having a Tamagotchi, but they don’t die if you forget to feed them. Now, isn’t that lovely, you have a new pet! And no litter trays to clear out!’ A template letter, drafted by a supporter, ‘implores’ our superiors in the House of Lords to ‘step in where the Other House has failed and halt this bill in its tracks’. ‘Other House’ is the rather snooty phrase used by Lords to refer to the Commons (and vice versa), but it is surely unbecoming for a trade-union supporter to refer to the Commons – the institution that Tom Paine claimed the freedom of England depended upon – as ‘the Other House’.
Despite the claims of some campaigners, it is highly unlikely that the Health and Social Care Bill will bring about the ‘end of the NHS’. What is interesting here, however, is not the issue at stake, but the willingness of the TUC to embrace a wholly anti-democratic institution. Having failed to successfully mobilise the public in sufficient numbers to rally against the bill, having failed to lead any effective militant action by its affiliates, and equally having failed to win the argument with elected MPs, the TUC is now turning to a body that doesn’t represent the public at all.
That the TUC does not see a problem with begging unelected representatives to step in as a ‘last hope’ reveals much about the state of trade unionism today. Stripped bare of any of the ideology that historically made the institutions progressive, all that seems to matter now is that its narrow interests are achieved, regardless of the compromises made in the process. Despite its rhetoric of being the voice of the people, the desperate ‘lobby a lord’ campaign suggests that the TUC actually has little time for the notion that the voices of ordinary people should be heard.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.