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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Yet more constitutional guff

(Or, On democracy, faction and the future of party)

The House of Lords is great:

“Elections are still vitally important in holding decision-makers accountable, but that does not mean that every political institution should be elected. We need the addition of more deliberative scrutiny of particular policy proposals, and that is a task that may well be better suited to an independent, life-appointed House of Lords than an elected, party-political upper house.”

Too right – I’ve argued this before. “Democratic” may often be used as a short-hand for “legitimate” and “best way forward”. But all you need to do is take a look at our current batch of MPs, or the denizens of any county council in the land to see that “democratically elected” does not necessarily mean “best person for the job”.

Of course, if Lords reform does come back on the agenda, the logical next question would be “when are we going to get full separation of powers?” How can an executive which is not directly elected (you can make a case for the Prime Minister, but not for the Cabinet – certainly not the likes of Lords Falconer and Adonis) try and claim the moral high ground by forcing democracy on a second chamber which, arguably, works far more effectively for the good of the country than the elected Commons?

There’s a lot about the way this country runs that makes little sense. The fact that the House of Lords is unelected, however, is the least of our worries. In fact, in countless votes over the last few years, the lack of an elected second chamber has been the one stopper on the government’s efforts to shunt us ever closer to authoritarianism. Without that freedom of action born of a sense of personal honour, the “glorification of terrorism” nonsense would have been passed without a fight the other day.

Appointments for life mean the whips have less power, which can only be a good thing in a system of government blighted by factions, parties and coalitions throughout its existence. And it is the age-old demon of party rivalry and party loyalty which has long been and continues to be the biggest threat to any democracy.

Every now and again the party behemoths need a shake-up; they need to be split and formed anew merely because the old ties that bind similar interests together will naturally, over the years, grow loose. Within both major parties there are so many differing opinions that their sole reason for continuing as they are is the desperate lust for power.

The Tories, under David Cameron, have known this for years now, and are still desperately trying to tame the birth of new internal factionism and prevent a new party breaking away. Having already lost the more extreme wings with the formation of the Referendum and UK Independence parties in the mid-1990s, they have a good chance.

Labour, meanwhile, seem not to have learned the lesson of the SDP breakaway; the party leadership is making no real effort to placate the discontents. The promised saviour Brown, long-dangled in front of the internal rebels, is increasingly looking like a false messiah, and it can surely only be a matter of time before enough people within the party realise that not only has it changed beyond recognition from the one they joined, but also that there is little hope of it shifting back.

Galloway’s Respect party has proved a bit of a damp squib. In that, Labour were lucky. The next time there’s a splintering, they could be set to lose far more.

And yet Blair still persists in his bloody-minded path, despite the complaints and rebellions. Concessions – as on the Education Bill – come of necessity, but always grudgingly. He has forgotten the single most important duty of any leader in a representative democracy – to effectively manage the party.

Disillusioned ex-Labour voters are already forming cross-party coalitions online through the likes of Liberty Central. It’s only a matter of time before some MPs begin to follow. Because despite all the invective spewed on the telly, in Westminster most MPs actually get on rather well, no matter what their party. Labour MPs will be chatting to Tories and Lib Dems about their discontents. And – most worryingly for the Labour leadership – thanks to the successes of the Blair/Brown partnership the single biggest obstacle to a new coalition, the economy, is no longer such a contentious issue as it once was.

Interesting times are in the offing.

5 Comments

  1. As to the first part of the post the second chamber Bravo! I whole heartedly agree.

  2. Can't believe I missed this. Makes a nice change to have someone chatting sense over the issue. Means damn all in the long run of course, the Lords will one day be made useless, but hopefully by then I'll be sitting on a beach, rather than clinging to the odd unpolitical article from random academics.

  3. Nice to see the migraine's cleared up…

    I rather liked the idea, Tony Benn's I believe, that the Lords should be the privy council: a mix of MPs from different parties with governmental experience.

    There's also a role for independent policy experts, though – the question is, how do you appoint them? An independent board is the obvious way forward – but then how do you appoint that? There's a risk of ending up with either government cronies or a self-selecting elite. Come to that, there'd need to be some sort of limit on numbers to prevent the government of the day from packing the house.

    Also, I'm not sure "life means life" is a good way of going about this. There needs to be some form of impeachment procedure for those who misbehave. Also, perhaps term limits would work if there was no chance of reselection: a single ten year term, perhaps, would keep membership ticking over without the risk of increasing party loyalties.

    But otherwise… yeah, good piece, good points.

  4. "Come to that, there'd need to be some sort of limit on numbers to prevent the government of the day from packing the house."

    Why should the govt of the day have any say in this (I mean, I know they will, but there is damn all justification for them having any sway over the make up of the Lords. Sure, give 'em their primacy, that's a no brainer (although the reasons might not be too wholesome), but after that – if the Lords is there to make reasoned decisions then being free of political attachments has to be a pre-requisite.

  5. In the Netherlands, the members of the 12 regional assemblies 'elect' the 75 senators. Couldn't Britain do something similar?

    At least get rid of the hereditary peers, to inherit a title is not an accomplishment and shouldn't carry special privileges such as a seat in an upper house.