Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

On 27th August, the government appointed 45 new members to the feudal relic that is the House of Lords, of whom 26 are Tories, 11 Liberal Democrats and eight Labour. The cronyism of these appointments was so blatant that it has made obvious the need to abolish this insult to democracy that is the Lords.

On 27th August, the government appointed 45 new members to the feudal relic that is the House of Lords, of whom 26 are Tories, 11 Liberal Democrats and eight Labour. The cronyism of these appointments was so blatant that it has made obvious the need to abolish this insult to democracy that is the Lords.

A veritable rogues gallery

“Disgraced MPs who cheated on their expenses, a multimillionaire Tory donor, a group of back-room political fixers and an alcohol industry lobbyist have been ennobled by David Cameron, sparking renewed calls for root-and-branch reform of the House of Lords...The new members will cost the taxpayer up to £13,500 a day in expenses when the Lords is sitting.” The Independent points out that ¼  of all the new appointees are ex-MPs disgraced in the expenses scandal circa 2010. Under capitalism, just as the ruling class will take with one hand any reform they give us with the other, so MPs exposed for corruption will find a way to sneak back into our corrupt parliament somehow.

The list of our newly esteemed Lords and Ladies reads like a public admission of the absurdity of this appalling, appointed legislature, which is supposed to confer the advantage of ‘disinterested’ expertise to our ‘democratic’ system.

The hated Andrew Lansley is now a life peer. In a testament to the arrogance of our ruling class, Cameron has also given ex-MP Douglas Hogg a life peerage (he is already a viscount, whatever that means). Not just any old expenses fiddler, Hogg was the face of the expenses scandal for infamously charging the public £2,200 to clean the moat of what we can only assume is his castle! He also charged us, among other things, for the tuning of his piano. The vast majority of us have no idea that the second face of this scandal, Quentin Davies, who charged us £20,700 to have his bell tower fixed, was appallingly made a peer immediately after losing his seat in the Commons in 2010.

The Guardian writes that “other appointments included a city banker who has given millions to the Conservative party, the chief executive of a company criticised earlier this year for failing to pay the minimum wage and the high-profile founder of a lingerie firm.”

An embarrassment to democracy

The latest appointments are profoundly anti-democratic, in keeping with the tradition of the House of Lords. The vast majority of Cameron’s new appointees are Tories, and a quarter are from the discredited Lib Dems, who supposedly are against the very body to which they are being appointed! Cameron has appointed 236 Lords (102 of whom are Tories) in the past five years, obviously to undemocratically bolster his weak and unpopular governments. Cameron has appointed more Lords than any prime minister.

Because there is no democratic mechanism for kicking out any Lord, these appointments are life appointments and have swelled the ranks of this parasitic body to a grotesque 820 - the second largest legislative body in the world (after China’s) and the only ‘upper house’ in the world larger than the lower house. There are 26 Bishops automatically in the Lords.

But let us not forget the bizarre hangover left from Blair’s extremely inadequate and compromised reform of the Lords in 1999, the 92 remaining hereditary peers, that is to say, the feudal aristocrats who still vote on British legislation. New hereditary peers (when one dies or resigns due to some scandal) are ‘elected’ from the narrow and inbred pool of Britain’s aristocracy - but only the existing hereditary peers get to vote! According to The Guardian, one recent contender, “Lord Ampthill, wants to abolish the NHS and “find an affordable successor model”. He wants to “confine the word ‘community’ to the bottom drawer” and adds mysteriously “Watch out for Monsieur Chauvelin.”

Why on earth does this embarrassment continue to be an integral part of the British state? Even from the narrow standpoint of formal bourgeois democracy, the Lords should be abolished. And yet in the midst of its latest abuse of democracy, we hear only, from the various politicians (including Jeremy Corbyn) and members of the chattering classes, that some sort of ‘reform’ must take place. But it was Blair’s compromising reforms that have led to the current mess of prime ministerial appointments.

A pillar of the establishment

Despite all this vague chatter about the need to reform the Lords, no one seems able to find a suitable reform. It is a measure of the reactionary obstinacy of the ruling class that hundreds of years after the bourgeois revolution, they have failed to abolish this absurd anachronism which does not even command the veneration some mistakenly have for its sister institution, the monarchy.

Alongside this confused clamour for ‘reform’, we also have various complaints about Cameron’s excessive appointments being in contradiction to the Lords’ constitutional role - as if that role is in itself to be defended.

But the real role of the House of Lords is clear. Officially, it is to scrutinise legislation, away from the prying and ignorant eyes of the general public. What that means in reality, of course, is that legislation is to be ‘scrutinised’ and slowed by the establishment to safeguard the interests of the ruling class. The Lords is often defended from the standpoint of tradition and stability - meaning the stability of the capitalist status quo.

There are many historical examples of the Lords being used to hold up or scupper progressive legislation that is against the interests of the ruling class, most famously in the English revolution in the 1640s when the King leant upon it against the revolutionary Commons. In 1909, under pressure of the class struggle and the newly formed Labour Party, the Liberals introduced a ‘People’s Budget’ to redistribute wealth to the poor. The Lords opposed this. Although they eventually accepted it a year later, this was only after a general election fought specifically on this budget had made an outright veto so untenable it would threaten the existence of the Lords, and only then after the budget was toned down. 

When the Labour government tried to repeal the reactionary and hated Trades Union Act of 1927 (which banned secondary picketing and any political strike), the Lords prevented its passing. It also tried to prevent, and delayed, the raising of the school leaving age to 15. More recently, in 2010 the Lords ensured the hiking of university tuition fees to £9,000 were fast-tracked through Parliament against (far too mild) Labour opposition.

This is the role of the House of Lords - to help guarantee that, whatever the political vicissitudes and changes in consciousness amongst the masses, the ruling class maintains political control. Thus these ‘defenders of democracy’ are only too happy to keep this joke of a body in its present farcical state.

Indeed, the only justification for a second parliamentary house, even where elected, is to maintain stability on the bourgeoisie’s terms. That is why we oppose all reform to the Lords and campaign for its outright abolition. From the standpoint of democracy, there is no need to elect two parliaments.

The British ruling class in general prides itself on its democratic credentials and heritage. This tradition has always been one of its chief ideological weapons in bringing the leaders of the working class to its side, by telling us there is no need for revolution because we have our glorious democracy. Consequently the leaders of the Labour Party - Corbyn included - have always emphasised the sanctity of the system of bourgeois democracy above the interests of the working class.

Reform or abolition?

Therefore the transformed Labour Party, under Corbyn’s leadership, should prove its commitment to democracy above all else by campaigning for the abolition of the House of Lords. In this intensely anti-establishment epoch which has brought Corbyn so dramatically to the head of the party, such a campaign would be entirely justified and would bring Corbyn massive popularity.  The latest opinion polls (which are from 2012 and are thus out of date - today opinion would be much more in favour of abolition or reform than the status quo), show that a massive 79% want reform, and 32% are also in favour of outright abolition. Only 16% think the Lords is OK as it is.

As Trotsky proposed to Corbyn’s inglorious predecessor MacDonald, Corbyn should say to the public that “to our shame, our country has to this day a kind of august dynasty that stands above democracy and for which we have no need. We are going to take their lands, mines, and railways, and nationalise their banks. With the resources released by the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords we are going to undertake the construction of housing for the workers.” In today’s epoch of establishment scandal, banking crises and unaffordable and scarce housing, such a campaign would unleash mass enthusiasm.

However, such a move would invite the full force of establishment reaction. But Corbyn will face that anyway. He must put up a clear fight by rallying his mass support around a clear campaign to transform society.

In their arsenal, the ruling class has many hidden weapons. To defend the state, including the Lords, they have the Treason Felony Act 1848 which states that “If any person whatsoever shall, within the United Kingdom or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose our Most Gracious Lady the Queen...or in order to put any force or constraint upon or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament... shall be liable ... to be transported beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life.” In other words, one can be tried for treason for merely thinking of overthrowing the House of Lords or monarch. That is because these institutions are part and parcel of the power of the rich which so many have come to realise is the source of our problems. Consequently, the abolition of the House of Lords is a part of the overthrow of that power.