Corbyn’s Labour – the House of Lords party
Like the Tories of old, the left is using the Lords to usurp democracy.
There have been angry protests about how the UK government’s proposed cuts to state tax credits reveal ‘the immoral truth about the Tories’, exposing prime minister David Cameron’s claim that the Conservatives are now the real party of working people.
Strangely, however, there has been rather less radical talk about how opposition attempts to prevent the changes to tax credits – which yesterday resulted in the House of Lords voting to postpone the cuts and compensate those affected – reveal an undemocratic truth about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Just weeks ago we were told that the election of the veteran left-winger Corbyn as leader meant Labour had been reborn as ‘the people’s party’. Now Labour looks more like ‘the peers’ party’, beholden to the strange clique of people sitting in the House of Lords.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have sought to pretend that their defeat in May’s General Election never happened, by focusing opposition to tax credit cuts in the unelected House of Lords – where, unlike the elected House of Commons, opposition members outnumber the Tories. (Remarkably, the Lib Dems, reduced to the rubble of just eight MPs in May, can still strut about the Lords with no fewer than 111 peers.)
As a result of Monday’s votes we know what Corbyn really meant by all the inspiring rhetoric with which he electrified his first party conference in September. After his overwhelming election as leader, Corbyn promised Labour’s excited supporters a ‘new, bottom-up politics’. That turns out to look strangely like the very old, top-down Tory politics of trying to use the House of Lords to block the will of the House of Commons.
Corbyn boasted of how his election marked the revitalisation of Labour as a mass movement; with the rise of this ‘modern left’, Corbyn claimed, ‘something new and invigorating, popular and authentic has exploded’. Now it appears that the ‘popular movement’ Corbyn’s leadership had in mind to mobilise was the massed ranks of the 811 unelected, unaccountable peers sitting in the Lords, second only to the National People’s Congress of China as the largest and least democratic legislative assembly on Earth. The only ‘movement’ in sight this week was that of ageing peers shuffling through the Lords’ lobby to vote against the elected government.
And who could forget Corbyn’s heartfelt conference attack on an unjust, undemocratic world where ‘some people have property and power, class and capital, status and even sanctity, which are denied to the multitude’. Could these few powerful, status-rich people be by any chance related to the ermine-robed barons and baronesses alongside bishops and the like whom Labour claims now represent the masses?
Whatever anybody might think about tax credits, cuts and welfare reform, there is a bigger issue at stake here. The shenanigans in the Lords confirms that Labour leaders are perfectly happy to bypass democratic politics and rely on elitist lords and judges if it suits their narrow party interests.
If Labour really is the revitalised mass party claimed by the Corbynistas, where are the public protests and poll-tax-style campaigns pressing the Tories to abandon their plans? Instead it appears that for all its new popular pretensions, the Labour leadership remains far more comfortable doing deals with bishops and scratching barons’ backs within the smoke-free backrooms of the House of Lords.
There has been dark talk of a ‘constitutional crisis’ if the Lords broke with convention and rejected the government’s financial plans, with Tory observers comparing the current situation to the historic struggle between the Lords and the Commons before the First World War.
The Tory-dominated Lords, backed by the king, rejected increases in income and land taxes in the 1909 ‘people’s budget’, brought in by the Liberal government elected in a landslide at the 1906 General Election. It took two more emergency General Elections, and the Liberals’ threat to swamp the Lords with hundreds of new peers, before the Commons finally emerged victorious with the 1911 Parliament Act, establishing that the Lords could not interfere with finance bills passed by MPs.
That was a genuine UK constitutional crisis in an era of widespread intense class struggle and the rise of the Labour Party, when the contest between commons and lords also got caught up with the conflict over Irish home rule. It involved what some historians describe as a ‘coup’ by Tory lords and two successive kings, designed to usurp the power of elected governments – an attempted coup that was even backed by military force in the infamous Curragh mutiny by British army officers in Ireland. The national crisis was only brought to an end by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
The current showdown over tax credits looks like a pale shadow of that historic conflict, more of a phoney war between two feeble armies. But there is one clear constant thread joining the two periods of history. That is the arrogant assumption – held back then by the Tories, now by Labour and the Lib Dems – that it is the House of Lords that really speaks for the will of the people, regardless of any awkward details such as General Election results.
In the pre-First World War crisis, the aristocratic Tories (then known as Unionists) claimed that it was they who really represented the British people, rather than the Liberal and upstart Labour MPs for whom most people had actually voted. As one study puts it, ‘The leader of the Unionists in the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury (Con), had developed a theory that the House of Lords had a “referendal function”. The Lords, it was argued, had a duty to act as interpreters of the national will, which included rejecting measures proposed by governments for which there was no mandate.’
Back then, the Lords tried to defy the elected government in order to protect the privileged and powerful. Today, Labour, Lib Dem and independent peers claim to do so in the name of protecting the poor and underprivileged. But the anti-democratic prejudice underpinning their actions remains essentially the same. They are assuming Lord Salisbury’s ‘referendal function’ to act as mystical interpreters of the ‘national will’, against the national government elected less than six months ago.
Meanwhile Labour’s supposedly radical cheerleaders in mainstream and social media appear filled with righteous contempt for elections and democracy. Of course it is right for the Lords to defy the government, says one, demanding to know ‘how else’ Labour is supposed ‘to bring this autocratic government to heel?’. It is as if 811 wise peers have the democratic right to outvote the 11,334,576 mug punters who voted for the Tories. And these people have the nerve to call the Tories ‘autocratic’ (meaning: dictatorial, despotic).
But oh no, self-righteous Labour supporters point out, it is not a democratic government because only about 24.4 per cent of the total eligible electorate actually voted Tory! That much is true, of course. The 2015 General Election was more of a humiliating defeat for Labour than a triumph for the Tories, and no party can really claim to command majority support in the country. Yet these critics have never felt obliged to make the same point about past Labour governments (as in 2005, when Tony Blair was re-elected with just 21.6 per cent of total available votes).
And one thing for certain is that, however few votes Cameron’s Conservatives received, it was well over 11million more than all the members of the House of Lords put together. Although the Bishop of Portsmouth, cheered to the rafters for denouncing the tax credit cuts as ‘morally indefensible’ on behalf of ‘millions of our fellow citizens’, might perhaps claim to have been elected to his seat in the Lords under the system of One God, One Vote.
Of course, nobody has meekly to accept whatever an elected government proposes. The liberty to protest against government policies and petition for change is as important as the right to vote. But that freedom has nothing in common with the anti-democratic tactic of pretending the House of Lords is some sort of ersatz opposition movement.
The whole unsavoury episode ought surely to act as a reminder to those apparently dazzled by Corbyn’s rhetoric that we should always judge people in politics, not by what they say about themselves, but by what they do. And what Corbyn’s Labour Party has done reveals that it combines the old state-socialist dogma of top-down politics with the fashionable contempt for the populace that imagines Twitter is a better gauge of the national will than the ballot box.
Whatever radical pretensions it may be dressed up in this week, the House of Lords remains the leftover rubbish of the Middle Ages. Rather than putting the Lords on a pedestal, anybody serious about political change and democratic progress should be trying to consign it to the dustbin of history.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(USA) and Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: UK House of Lords
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