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House of Lords, politics

The Lords gave Osborne a bloody nose, but that doesn’t justify its existence.

GO Lords! Opponents of the government’s tax credit cuts, including members of the Scottish National Party, were cheering the upper house last night. Their Lordships have made clear the Chancellor, George Osborne, needs to think again on this key measure of welfare reform.

Now there is an obvious irony here. Many of those celebrating their Lordships independence of mind are the same people who denounce the House of Lords as an unelected abomination filled with plutocrats and geriatric cronies. The Lords seems to be rather less abominable when it is opposing the will of a democratically-elected Tory government.

Of course, the Lords should be reformed. People who have not been elected to parliament have no place in the legislative process, let alone well over 800 of them. It is a democratic anachronism composed of ex-hereditaries, government toadies, businessmen, lawyers, bishops and assorted members of the “great and the good”. And the not so great, like Lady Mone.

However, the Lords is all we have at the moment to provide a check on a headstrong government. George Osborne is not for turning on tax credits even though large numbers of his own backbenchers and even the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Ruth Davidson, believe they will cause needless hardship for the working poor.

The Lords actually works a lot better than it should and both Tony Blair and David Cameron have had cause to wish it wasn’t there. Mr Cameron was defeated more than 100 times in the last parliament. Last week the Lords rebelled against cutting subsidies for onshore wind.

Of course, the Commons generally gets its way in the end on the big issues at least, like the bedroom tax which the Lords also rejected. But this revising process is important, and the Lords often successfully amends sloppy bills in relatively obscure ways which prevents them disgracing the statute book.
This Conservative government, unusually, does not have a majority in the House of Lords. Until May, the Tories had not been in power on their own since 1997 and therefore had not been in a position to pack the Lords with Tory peers.

This may now change. Indeed, Mr Cameron is thought to be prepared to send up to 100 new peers to the Lords to give his government a majority there. He says this is democratic because the unelected Lords should not be able to over ride the elected Commons.

But this would bring the total complement of peers, the majority of whom are over 70, to approaching 1,000, making it the largest legislative forum after the National Congress of the Peoples Republic of China. Similarly unelected.

This unreasonable, unsustainable, undemocratic and hugely expensive. The Lords don’t get a salary as such, unless they have ministerial responsibility or similar posts, but they get an allowance of up to £300 a day even though most are so wealthy they hardly need it.

There can be no greater irony in politics than that this well-heeled selection of the nation’s elite should be the last bulwark against cuts in the incomes of the working poor.

But the fact the Lords isn’t as bad as it could be does not justify its existence. All the major parties are committed – more or less – to reforming he Lords and turning it into a democratic chamber. However, none of them ever quite get round to it.

Mr Cameron made clear after the general election that reforming the Lords is “not a priority” which means it won’t happen. He appears to favour a largely elected upper house with members elected for 15 years. Labour had 13 years to abolish the Lords and, and while they scrapped the hereditary principle, they never got round to the main task.

The only way the Lords could be consigned to the dustbin of history – say the SNP – is for everyone to boycott it. Refuse to serve in it. But the problem there is that only the SNP are currently engaged in this moratorium.

In the absence of Labour putting its peers where its mouth is and walking out of the Lords, the SNP’s protest becomes at best futile, at worst counterproductive. Scotland’s voice is not heard on important bills like the Scotland Bill.

Jeremy Corbyn knows what to do. But watching all those former Labour ministers sitting on the red benches in yesterday’s debate you can be pretty sure he won’t be allowed to.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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