The House of Lords is a National Embarrassment – and the Joke is on Us

by Aaron Bastani

15 October 2020

Roger Harris, UK Parliament/Flickr

Towards the end of the 19th century, Walter Bagehot authored his magnum opus The English Constitution. In it he detailed what he perceived to be the unique genius of the Westminster system, defined as it was not by a single codified document, as in the republics of France or the US, but by the pillars of constitutional monarchy and the sovereignty of parliament. 

While still widely praised by pundits and politicians alike – virtually none of whom have read it – the anti-democratic content of the book explains a great deal about contemporary Britain. The tension between Bagehot’s world, where the principal source of political legitimacy was the majesty of the sovereign and the theatricality of parliament, and ours, haunted as it is by the spectre of rising inequality, climate change, Covid-19 and demographic ageing, could not be more stark. 

While few will openly admit it, Bagehot’s antipathy to democracy remains the default setting for the British establishment. This becomes more surprising when one is acquainted with the man’s views. In The English Constitution, he claimed that adopting universal male suffrage – which had already been in place in France for almost half a century – would mean “parliament could not be composed of moderate men”. Indeed, in Bagehot’s view, even the semblance of democracy was to be avoided, as “once you permit the ignorant class to begin to rule, you may bid farewell to deference forever.” 

This helps explain why the House of Lords, Britain’s second chamber, remains entirely unelected and beyond the reach of popular accountability. The Lords does not exist to provide effective government – or even to have a handle on what is actually happening (something that becomes clear from even a cursory glance at Lord Alan Sugar’s Twitter feed) – but to be entirely negative. The very point of the House of Lords is to not be democratic.

Again the liberal oracle, Bagehot is entirely clear about this, lambasting “ultra-democratic” impulses as tantamount to revolutionary: 

“The House of Lords, as a House, is not a bulwark that will keep out revolution, but an index that revolution is unlikely. Resting as it does upon old deference, and inveterate homage, it shows that the spasm of new forces, the outbreak of new agencies, which we call revolution, is for the time simply impossible. So long as many old leaves linger on the November trees, you know that there has been little frost and no wind; just so while the House of Lords retains much power, you may know that there is no desperate discontent in the country, no wild agency likely to cause a great demolition.” 

The point in Bagehot’s time, as in our own, was to maintain a charade which meant democratic politics, or simply something better than the status quo, was futile – the Lords itself a trench against political reform. A century ago the institution was based on inherited title, today its foundation is party patronage. If anything, the second is more shameful than the first – at least before nobody claimed the Lords reflected a modern democratic society. 

Today the Lords is the world’s second largest legislative chamber. With more than 800 members, it comes second only to the National People’s Congress of China (a country which, in its defence, has a population 20 times that of Britain). Not a single member of the Lords is chosen by the public, with party leaders, and the Lords Appointments Commission, determining who becomes an unelected legislator for life. While Labour’s intention was to ‘modernise’ the Lords after 1997 as part of a broader constitutional package, all it did was discard an absurd anachronism and replace it with a mob of former MPs, party donors and minor TV celebrities. Tradition was to go – but it was not to be replaced by anything substantively democratic. This, in a sentence, was the legacy of New Labour as it took a pickaxe to the Westminster system while maintaining its worst flaws. 

Indeed, claims the Lords are ‘independent’ from the Commons are nonsense, and in this sense things are worse now than before the reforms of the late 20th century. In 2016-17, 78% of Tory peers failed to defy the government even once, while the average Labour peer voted against the government 90% of the time. This is unsurprising considering the Lords is the home of political has-beens. As recently as 2017, its members included 184 former MPs, 26 former MEPs, 11 former MSPs, 8 former Welsh Assembly Members, 6 former London Assembly Members, 11 former members of the Northern Irish Assembly and 39 current or ex-council leaders. The Lords exists to ensure former party apparatchiks maintain their status at the taxpayers expense. It’s harder to imagine anything more offensive to a democratic sensibility.

At least these people were once elected, however – which is more than can be said for the likes of Iain McNicol, Labour’s former general secretary who is presently embroiled in the Labour leaks scandal. Last year McNicol was among 64 Labour peers who signed a “letter” – which was in reality an advert that cost £18k – telling Jeremy Corbyn he had failed the test of leadership. Another signatory was former home secretary John Reid – an ‘anti-racist’ who once took a holiday with future warlord Radovan Karadžić.

Then there was Baroness Morgan of Huyton – Sally Morgan to you and I. Once a trusted advisor to Tony Blair, Morgan allegedly helped the then prime minister block the attorney-general from explaining to cabinet the small matter of whether the Iraq war was legal. After leaving Downing Street in 2005, Morgan became a non-executive director at Southern Cross Healthcare, leaving a year before it went bust in 2012. She proceeded to become a senior non-executive director at Carillion, the outsourcing company, which also went into liquidation in early 2018. While I have no respect for Tory peers, I’ve even less for those on Labour’s benches.

Yet even the likes of Morgan and McNicol, whose names should be by-words for political failure, were outdone with the ‘elevation’ of three Labour MPs who were key in undermining the party while sitting on its benches: John Mann, John Woodcock and Ian Austin.

Theresa May’s decision to award Mann a life peerage raised concern among the Appointments Commission, who worried that his enthusiastic endorsement of May’s Brexit Deal “could create the impression that this was a reward for services rendered”. Woodcock and Austin, meanwhile, were ennobled in Boris Johnson’s dissolution honours list after they instructed Labour voters to vote Tory the previous December. Importantly, Woodcock’s schism with Labour wasn’t catalysed by political differences – of which there were many – but by his suspension following allegations of sexual assault in 2018.

There are many things that indicate Britain’s future is anything but bright: that its governing class is craven to a tiny elite, that its media has been captured by billionaires, and that its party of opposition has spent the last four years either attacking its own leader or trying to reverse the 2016 referendum. Yet nothing is quite as galling as seeing the latest round of popinjays sent to the second chamber, illustrating how our political system is becoming ever more inflected by patronage and nepotism. This turn began under New Labour, but it has taken a decade of Tory government to raise such venality to the level of art.

The Lords is a place without honour, let alone democracy – it is a place for political parties, but not the people. But that, alas, is its point. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.


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