Lords reform: politics peers into the abyss
The row over plans to replace peers with senators reveals the crisis, not only of the coalition, but of the entire democratic system.
The row over reform of the UK House of Lords, which has strained the Lib-Con coalition government, has been presented on all sides as an issue of high principle, with much talk of the future of democracy and constitutional integrity.
In reality, both supporters and opponents of the proposed reforms for replacing peers with senators are indulging in low, opportunist politics, playing games with great issues of state for short-term public-relations and party advantage. The debacle confirms that the biggest problem facing British democracy is not whether the anachronism of the House of Lords is elected, appointed or chosen by lottery, but the dearth of principled politics and beliefs at the heart of the system: the House of Commons.
The Lib Dem champions of the Lords Reform Bill, led by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, claim they are trying to complete the revolution of democratising the UK’s upper chamber that their forebears began more than 150 years ago. This is more hot air than even the venerable lords produce in an after-lunch debate. The bill proposes electing ‘senators’ for a term of 15 years – an extraordinary system that would have nothing to do with real democracy, in terms of accountability to demos, the people. In any case, the historic struggle in which the Liberals of old did indeed play a prominent part was always to curtail the power of the Lords and assert the right of the majority of MPs in the Commons to rule. These proposals appear to involve the opposite – strengthening the authority of the upper chamber to interfere with government and thwart MPs who are accountable to the ‘commons’ – the people.
No, Clegg’s ‘principled’ stand has really been nothing more noble than a gesture designed to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats still exist as an independent and influential political party. Stung by criticism that they have become mere silent sidekicks to their Tory coalition partners, and languishing in the opinion polls, the Lib Dems want to raise a flag to show that they are still here. That is why, when prime minister David Cameron sought to cement the coalition by asking Clegg to choose an issue for the government to prioritise, he chose the Lib Dems’ hobby horse of constitutional tinkering – sorry, reform – rather than any more practical measures. But after the chastening experience of last time, when referendum voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lib Dems’ other pet project of voting reform, Clegg – the champion of democracy – was adamant that the people should have no say this time.
On the other side of the debate, the 91 Conservative MPs who staged the biggest revolt of this parliament against their own government’s Lords Reform Bill and who raised questions about the future of the coalition also claim to be motivated by high principles. What those principles might be, however, remains unclear amid the shifting, confused and often contradictory case they presented. It might make more sense if they were the old guard of Tory traditionalists. But many of them are from the latest intake of Conservative MPs at the 2010 General Election. The leader of the ‘rebels’, Jesse Norman, is one of Cameron’s own clique of ‘modernisers’.
It seems that, like their Lib Dem allies/opponents, these Tory MPs are mainly motivated by narrow party-political concerns more than broad principles. They, too, are concerned that their identity is becoming lost in the coalition, protesting that ‘true Conservatism’ is being fudged for the sake of keeping the Lib Dems on board. Thus it was telling that they chose to make a symbolic stand against Clegg’s latest constitutional folly, rather than any more central government policy. The Tory MPs’ opposition to the bill is essentially as much of a gesture as the Lib Dems’ support for it, another attempt to raise a distinctive flag on an issue that few people feel strongly about.
The attitude of the opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, captures the spirit of low opportunism that has shaped the conflict over this elevated constitutional question. Labour leader Ed Miliband ordered his MPs – many of whom are unhappy with the bill – to vote for the Lib Dems’ reform proposals this week, to make a show of his party’s ‘democratic’ credentials. Yet he also made clear that Labour would vote against the timetabling motion that would have given the government a chance to force the measures through. This forced Cameron and Clegg to withdraw that motion and postpone the issue. The Labour Party’s two-faced attitude to the bill demonstrated that its primary concern has been to prolong the crisis and stir up the maximum trouble within the coalition, in the hope of reaping some narrow party advantage. In this allegedly historic constitutional debate, it seemed that nothing mattered more than gaining a couple of points in next week’s opinion polls.
The mess of the Lords-reform debate illustrates the crisis of a parliamentary system in which politicians and parties have few if any distinctive principles. They believe in little more than managing the economy like accountants and saving their own electoral hides. Cameron himself personifies this pathetic state of affairs. Contrary to the rumours, he is not a True Blue whose real agenda has been hijacked or smothered by being forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems. Cameron is a politics-lite ‘moderniser’ who is perfectly comfortable with attacks on the Tories’ cherished traditions, whether that means throwing out the old Lords or supporting gay marriage. He is interchangeable with Clegg and Miliband (or Miliband’s brother) as members of the new ideology-free oligarchy, standing for nothing and sitting isolated and insulated at the top of political life.
It is not just the coalition that is in permanent crisis here. Far more importantly, it is democratic politics. Democracy has to involve something more than having an occasional vote (although that is an important start). It must mean offering a choice between distinctive and competing visions of the future. Even in the midst of the current economic stagnation, there is little sign of any such clash between the leaders of parties that are devoid of politics with a capital P. Hence, despite all of the personal tensions and parliamentary travails, the coalition government just carries on, clinging together behind the Westminster drawbridge that the two parties pulled up when they swore to stay together for a five-year parliament, come what may. Meanwhile, the Labour opposition waits for that clock to run down and hopes that the coalition government will then be in such a state of disarray that even the hopeless Miliband will be able to take over without having to offer any clear alternatives.
As spiked has argued throughout, there is a straightforward enough solution to the problem of the House of Lords. Get rid of it altogether, and complete the democratic revolution begun more than 350 years ago. More pressing than that measure, however, is the need for a new democratic revolution at the heart of British politics. Instead, today we are witnessing the bizarre spectacle of radical lobbyists looking to the unelected lords, the last vestige of Britain’s ancient regime, to save us from the elected MPs. Thus, the trade unions and the left have launched an ‘Adopt a peer’ campaign, calling on people to lobby a particular lord to oppose government measures such as the NHS reforms.
If that is the best alternative on offer, then whatever happens in the petty-minded bun-fight over disposing of the peers and Lords reform, democratic politics does appear to be peering into the abyss.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)
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