Bourgeois politics is divided over the extent to which the undemocratic second chamber should be tinkered with. While all three main parties are officially agreed that an elected element should be introduced, there are differences over the balance between a partially elected Lords and the Commons, whether the question should be put to a referendum and the exact composition of the new chamber. Of course, there is a section of diehard Tories that unashamedly declares that an unelected Lords, which has stood the establishment in such good stead with its solid upholding of reactionary tradition, is best left well alone.
At the April 19th meeting of the rightwing 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives only one MP thought there should be any change at all. The noble ladies and gentlemen of the Lords – aided and abetted by a gaggle of Church of England clerics and all those totally loyal ‘non-political experts’, appointed to help ensure there can never be anything too radical enacted – are doing just fine as they are, thank you very much. However, the majority of the political establishment is aware that there is a problem with this approach. After all, ingrained in the British ideology of national chauvinism is the central precept that it is our ‘democratic values’ that help make us special. You see, we British are especially committed to the rule of the majority, implemented by representatives elected by universal suffrage. It is widely agreed that a second chamber performs the essential role of imposing ‘checks and balances’ on the Commons – just in case those unreliable MPs, perhaps worried about the prospect of an impending election, rather too hastily vote for legislation that might undermine the solidity of bourgeois rule. But this delaying and obstructive role must not be too obvious. In fact it would help a lot if the Lords itself could be more convincingly portrayed as an intrinsic part of the democratic process. Which is what the proposed reforms are all about.
While the actual measures will be formally revealed in the May 9th queen’s speech, a taster was given on April 23rd by the parliamentary joint committee on Lords reform. As readers will know, the committee, in its majority, proposes that the size of the Lords be reduced to 450 full-time members, of which 80% (360) will be elected by a complicated version of the single transferable vote system. Laughably these elected members would serve for a term of 15 years – a period that is so extended that it surely calls into question the whole idea of legitimisation through elections. And just so that the embedded role of the Church of England should not be weakened in the slightest, 12 of the appointed 90 members will continue to be the church’s wise bishops, whose divine insights are crucial in ensuring that all legislative changes take account of God’s wishes. There will be a transitional period of at least 10 years before the new arrangements are fully in place.
Although for the moment the mass of the population acquiesces in its own subjection and for the most part is not moved to challenge the anti-democratic devices put in place by the UK constitutional monarchy, there is no guarantee that this will continue indefinitely, and so the consensus amongst the main parties is that a little ‘modernisation’ might be in order. However, while it is essential for the ruling ideology that a degree of ‘democratisation’ of the Lords be carried through, an equivalent process is most certainly not contemplated for the institution of the head of state – by ditching the monarchy in favour of an elected presidency, for example.
The queen plays her essential stabilising and unifying role for the ruling class precisely because she is supposed to be ‘above politics’. She announces and rubber-stamps policy decided upon by the cabinet – having, of course, made the prime minister aware of the possible defects of proposed legislation in the interests of us all. The monarch symbolises both continuity with an unbroken tradition of British values and the supposed commonality of interests of all classes in a way that an elected – and therefore politically partisan – president could never do.
While the complete and utter absence of any element of democratic accountability in a second chamber is a serious problem for bourgeois ideologues, in the case of the monarchy it is still seen as a positive asset. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Lords reform will do the trick and ensure its future legitimacy in the eyes of the majority. It is not just the absurd 15-year term of office, but also the continuation of the practice of appointing some of its members. If such legitimacy demands the election of the majority, why does that not apply to the whole lot? If most members are to be the elected representatives of the people, is it not possible that the minority will be regarded as establishment placemen and women? Moreover, if members of the Lords are put in place by the same electorate that voted for MPs (albeit by a different method), then what exactly are they supposed to be doing that MPs cannot? What is the point of electing a second batch of representatives just to oversee the work of the first batch? There is no point, of course, since a single chamber could (and does) set up various specialist committees empowered to examine the detail of proposed legislation and recommend changes. It is for these reasons that the Tory right insists that it is best to leave well alone – there is a danger that the institutions of the ruling class will be demystified and thereby opened up to more serious questioning.
But at least this whole affair has highlighted the question of genuine democracy. For our part, we are clear: abolish the second chamber, together with the monarchy and all the other ‘checks and balances’ against democracy. We are for a single chamber that can easily be held to account – intimidated if need be – by the population. For this reason we are also opposed to an elected presidency, whose occupant inevitably acts in some ways like an elected monarch and cannot easily be made accountable. If there is to be that dictator’s device – a referendum – on this question, it will surely ask a question for which there will be only two, equally unacceptable, answers: Do you approve of the proposed changes or do you favour the status quo? Workers should make use of the current debate, and any referendum campaign, to emphasise the kind of genuine democracy that we demand vis-à-vis the state: the radical republican democracy of progressives.