The decision by the House of Commons to move to an entirely elected second chamber is effectively a move to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with something else.
Abolition of the Lords used to be mainstream Labour policy, although never enacted, and has long been one of the key demands of the Labour left, so why do I feel so unenthusiastic about it? Is it because Labour have finally acted becasue the issue has now become meaningless?
When the Lords was largely hereditary there was a massive built in majority for the Conservatives, and for example during the 1975 to 1976 session of Parliament, the Labour government suffered a huge 126 defeats in the Lords. Any radical or reforming agenda by Labour would expect entrenched opposition from chinless wonders who had a right to block legislation just because their great great great grandmother shagged Charles II, or some equally important service to the crown.
But the last hurrah of the Hereditary peers as a political force was blocking the repeal of the homophobic Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 2000. By the time the Labour Party sucessfully reintroduced the repeal in 2003 the House of Lords had seen the back of most of the hereditaries as the House of Lords Act 1999 had come into force.
I obviously support the extension of the principle of extending elections to the second chamber. But the context has utterly changed.
Firstly, the Labour Party has so utterly changed and now stands for neo-liberal economic policies combined with the concept of an authoritarian and intrusive state role to enforce and police social conformity. The idea that the House of Lords would impede progressive legislation from Labour designed to provide an irreversible shift in wealth and power to working people and their families is laughable as Labour’s economic policy wouldnowadays sit happily with the Tories or the US Republicans. However if we are truthful with ourselves the House of Lords has actually provided a progressive constraint in recent years against the tendency of New Labour to restrict civil liberties. For example, opposition to anti-working class policies such as ID cards, detention without trial, or the war in Iraq has not come from our two elected Labour MPs in the town where I live, but from the unelected Lord Stoddart of Swindon.
Secondly, the most important change of context is that the greater threat to the authority of the House of Commons is not the unelected House of Lords, but the unelected army of special advisors, spin doctors, policy enforcers that New Labour has made a seemingly permanent feature of our political system.
New Labour has sought to become a self-perpetuating governing elite, and democracy within the Labour Party has been hollowed out to ensure that only careerists, Yes-men and Yes-women, and numpties have any chance of being selected for elected office. The Party conference has been transformed into an almost meaningless rally, resistant to influence from the grass roots or the unions. New Labour would rather derive its domestic policy from focus groups and the Daily Mail than from a democratic process involving it membership, and derives its foreign policy from the Whitehouse.
The biggest impediment to radical social change is not the unelected House of Lords, but the utter lack of a party of organised labour, while we have the space occupied by a party that is Labour in name only.