The Greasy Pole column from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
If anyone needs any odd jobs doing – mowing the lawn, walking the dog, putting up some shelves – they might bear in mind those well-preserved people who now have time on their hands because they are no longer allowed to spend their days snoozing on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.
The Commons vote to abolish the rights of hereditary peers – or at least for most of them – was hailed as a great victory for democracy and proof that New Labour is a government which keeps its promises. This, we were told, was the will of the people. The people had read Labour’s manifesto and liked what they read and gave the government a clear mandate to get on with the job (actually only 44 per cent voted for it but never mind). And everyone knows that there are no stauncher defenders of the people’s democratically expresed will than Tony Blair and his New Labour enforcers.
In the past Blair has always been quite clear about the urgent need to do something about those people who had the right through birth to interfere with the processes of running British capitalism. “Ancient and indefensible practice” he called it in 1984. “In principle wrong and absurd . . . a drinking and dining club” was his view in 1996. And in Labour’s 1997 manifesto “The right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute”.
No two ways about that, you might think. What was not promised in the manifesto was to abolish the rights of only some of the peers, leaving the rest of them to carry on while everyone gives the matter further thought. That was the result of a covert deal between the government and one of the bluest-blooded of the peers (which cost him his place in the Shadow Cabinet). Why Blair, with his huge majority, should have accepted this compromise is not entirely clear, unless it was that it was just another manifesto commitment to be mangled, enfeebled, delayed . . . It has not been so with all that the government has done. When thinking up new ways of punishing criminals, or reducing legal rights, or attacking the poorest and most vulnerable people, they have acted with memorable urgency. But of course in those cases they were not dealing with people of wealth and influence.
It could hardly have been, that the government were impressed with the Lords’ own defence of their privileges. One of them – Lord Campbell – had the nerve to describe the abolition of their undemocratic rights as “a great denial of democracy”. Lord Strathclyde claimed to be in touch with public opinion on the issue in this country and beyond: “We do not want it. The public does not. The outside world does not”. In this deluded state the noble Lords were capable of believing that the people were about to take to the barricades to preserve their rights, in gratitude for the days when they occasionally gave Margaret Thatcher some grief and so were able to pose as defenders of the democratic rights of the common people. At that time there were signs that some peers were appalled at the crudeness of all those car sellers and estate agents braying on the Tory benches in the Commons, none of whom were ever likely to touch their forelocks to anyone.
One example of how the Lords behaved then was when they debated – if that is the right word – a final vital amendment to the Bill which was to abolish the Greater London Council. On that day there was no open rebellion because there was simply not enough of them in the chamber. The Daily Telegraph reported that “Lord Denham’s (leader of the Lords) face froze with horror…(He) gazed over the thinned out ranks of unsocial Tories behind”. The reason for the unpopulated benches on that day was rather less romantic than any last ditch stand in favour of Ken Livingstone and his Council. Many of the noble heads were at Ascot, where it was a big event – Ladies’ Day. It was an appropriate comment on how seriously the self-styled champions of democracy took the obligations implied by their privileged position. The Tory whips rushed around frantically, rounding up peers of a lesser pedigree while the “debate” was kept alive through a lordly filibuster. When they had enough votes the amendment was voted on and lost, the GLC was on the way out and the peers could congratulate themselves over their port and nuts on their value to the machinery of democratic government.
There is, then, a certain ironic symmetry in the fact that the House of Lords and Ken Livingstone should be in the news at the same time and that in both cases there is an issue of whether democratic procedures are under abuse. In their 1997 manifesto the Labour Party promised that London would have its own elected strategic authority headed by an elected mayor. What they did not promise was that, whatever popular opinion was on the matter, the Labour candidate would be someone who was guaranteed not to upset Blair and his Millbank cronies in the same way that the House of Lords and Ken Livingstone once upset Thatcher.
In September 1993 Blair told Brian Walden, on London Weekend TV, that the block vote was “the brake on the enthusiasms” of Party members. “We are going to have One Member One Vote coming into many, many of the decisions of the Labour Party” he assured the viewers. That may have persuaded many members of the Labour Party that OMOV would be used to select their candidate for London’s mayor. The snag was that, had that been allowed to happen, Ken Livingstone was well fancied to win the nomination hands down – which would have been something akin to a nightmare to Blair. Since Livingstone could not be persuaded to stand down the system had to be changed along with the candidates to oppose him. So out went the likes of Trevor Phillips and in came Frank Dobson, who was the leader of Camden Council when it was prominent among those local authorities damned as loony lefties and who is renowned as a talented reciter of shockingly dirty jokes but who would do what Blair wanted. Out, too, went OMOV and in came the electoral college with the block vote, now no longer a brake on enthusiasms but the way forward to the kind of democratic decision making which Blair approves.
But Livingstone’s popularity would not go away so there had to be more tinkering; this time so that more time was allowed between the settling of the short list and the final selection of the candidate, with the object of giving Dobson an opportunity to organise a more effective campaign. You may call all this moving the goal posts or gerrymandering or fiddling the system. What you may not call it is allowing a democratic vote on an important issue.
In these irrelevant squabbles about who should be in charge of the organs which run, and try to control, British capitalism nobody should be deceived by Labour’s claim that their reform of the House of Lords and the establishment of an authority to run London is driven by any democratic principle. When they need to the government treat democratic procedures as irritants and obstacles. Democracy for them is what pleases their leader and what pleases their leader is the imposition of policies which are based on Labour’s need to protect and prosper the interests of the British ruling class. That is why, when the voters of London go to choose their mayor, they may well find that they can vote for anyone they like as long as it’s Frank Dobson.