Thursday, March 08, 2007

The end of parliament

As expected, the House of Commons has voted to get rid of the House of Lords and NuLabour has finally delivered the killer blow to the British Constitution with the decision to back a wholly elected second chamber. I know this has considerable support amongst the electorate too - with claims that this is democracy in action - but I am one of those who strongly disagree and I'd like to explain why.

Check and balance

First of all, one of the purposes of the Lords is to hold the Commons to account. It is the principal "check and balance" that prevents a democratically elected government turning into a democratically elected dictatorship - particularly when that government has a large majority, but also at other times too. Since 1997, it has only been through the diligence and persistence of the Lords that NuLabour has been reigned in and prevented from wreaking considerably more harm to our nation that it has done so far. What last night's vote constitutes is the Commons effectively voting to get rid of the body that regulates it. The analogies are obvious. It's like the newspapers voting to get rid of the Press Complaints Commission, or schools voting to abolish Ofsted. Less obviously, it's like Chelsea voting to get rid of Manchester United.

Democratic deficit

Secondly, it seems incredible to me that at a time when there is more and more disillusionment amongst the electorate with the democratic system with lower and lower turnouts for ever increasing votes, that the proposal is to increase that disillusionment. There are various theories as to why people are not bothering to vote any more - makes no difference, they're all the same, too remote, out of touch, no real power, not truly accountable and so on - and virtually all of them will apply to the elections for the second chamber. We already have local elections, European parliament elections and General Elections where voter turnout is so low that the democratic label can hardly be applied. and the party in power governs even though it wins less than 40% of the vote on the day and barely a quarter of the electorate voted for it. And yet it enjoys a significant majority in government. That's OK, though, because, at the moment, we have a second chamber that puts a brake on any attempt to abuse that power. That will go when it becomes an elected chamber.

Party influence

The Lords, as it stands now, is not subject to party politics and posturing. The majority of Lords are affiliated to a political party, but unlike their Commons colleagues they are not subject to party persuasion and pressure. Indeed, you will often find Lords from one party actually voting against their party's declared position on a vote. They can do this because they are appointed and not elected - so they can not be deselected. In the Commons, if a party member consistently challenges his party's position, that party can apply pressure through the whip's office and can even have that member deselected in order to make them tow the party line. They can not do this in the Lords as there is nothing the whips can do to deselect the member. Virtually every vote in the Lords is a free vote. There is still the party politics of the Commons, but it is less pervasive and considerably more grown up than the Commons. The absence of the yah-boo style of debate we so often see in the Lower House is testament to that. We know that whatever is said in a Commons debate, unless it is a free vote, the members will then vote on what they are told to vote for rather than making their decision based on the arguments of the debate. Rather than grandstanding and political point-scoring, the Lords have proper, reasoned, serious debates and you can be pretty sure that when it comes to voting they will vote according to the debate. Once they become elected - all this will go. Instead they will be subject to the vagaries of party politics. They will need to keep on the right side of their whips and the party happy. They will be entirely partisan.

Loss of continuity

One of the reasons the House of Lords has been a success over the years is that, unlike the House of Commons which fluctuates enormously from election to election and decade to decade, the Lords brings a continuity to parliament. This continuity means the Lords is not influenced by fashion or fad, it is not influenced by policy makers or focus groups and it is not influenced by lobbyists and pressure groups. The continuity of the Lords means that it retains a sense of history and prioritises national welfare above fashionable causes.

Evolution not revolution

The Lords is, of course, conservative in nature. Which is why it is so despised by the liberal progressive movement and why those liberal progressives have spent the last century trying to get rid of it. It is opposed to revolutionary, reactionary politics, but supports gradual change through proven, workable solutions - properly thought out and thoroughly tested - instead of knee jerk responses to populist demands. It is, probably, the second last bastion of conservative Britain left - leaving one final hurdle for the liberal progressives to overcome as they complete their slow motion coup d'etat. Throughout the campaigns to abolish the Lords I have never heard anyone supporting the abolishment claim that the reason they are doing so is because it doesn't work properly. I've heard claims that it's anachronistic or somehow "undemocratic", but never that it doesn't work - because it does what it is supposed to do very well. A little too well for some. Quite often, these same people striving to abolish the Lords support the EU which is truly anachronistic, undemocratic and certainly does not work. Does anyone, really and truly believe that a parliament that can lay claim to being the longest running unbroken democracy in the world needs to be destroyed to survive?

If these people truly believe that for something to be truly democratic there needs to be a popular vote on it, then let them subject the same principle to other areas of parliament. let the people decide on their salary increase - not themselves. Let their constituents approve their expenses. Let's have votes on Chief Constables, judges, school headmasters. The air of Westminster is heavy with the stench of hypocrisy today.

No comments: