British governance is a mess. Our “constitution” is a series of bodge jobs that patch over deep political problems. The reason for this is that reform in Britain has never been about the question “How should this country be run?” but the question “How do we get power from those fuckers?”. The slow process of evolution of British governence from magna carta to universal suffrage is not a sign of wisdom and tradition, as small-c conservatives will say, but the by-product of groups of individuals realising that the powerful are acting against their interests and they want to take their power from them.
The upshot of this is that we have a government selected from the house of commons that, in the body of the prime minister, holds the powers of the royal prerogative (because we still have an effing monarchy) along with priority in the commons for presenting and passing legislation, which it almost always gets through because it holds a majority. Parliament’s job is supposedly to hold this government to account. This can be done through things like select commitees, voting against government bills in the commons and votes in the House of Lord.
The House of Lords is the odd one out. Originally, this looked after the interests of the aristocracy whilst the Commons looked after the interests of landowning, well, commoners. Now, after a set of bills referred to as the Parliament Acts limiting its power, and with the New Labour reforms against hereditary peers, it is a bit of a sore thumb. Made up of politically aligned lords, non-party “cross bench” peers and CofE bishops. (Having unelected clergy in parliament is something that we have in common with Iran, but not with any country in the west).
It’s job, we are told, is to hold government to account as an advisory chamber of experience and expertise, voting on changes to bills ensuring good legislation. As such, their delay of the tax credit bill is perfectly within their remit. The government have been ignoring the analysis of the IFS scandalously, and the Lords have just forced them to respond to it properly.
Now, I’m not saying the House of Lords is a good thing. It isn’t. The whole setup is ridiculous, as I said above. I’ll admit there is a certain temptation to see parliament as a whole and the Lords in particular as a great body of scrutiny, but it really isn’t. For a start, consider how all of the supposed processes of scrutiny have no real power over the government. At best, parliament can put hurdles in the way, but the government still powers through. As we saw with the trade union bill, the idea that parliament can force the government to write good legislation is absurd. Even aside from the political issues, the idea that they drafted something that is probably in violation of several international agreements and still pass the damn thing gives the lie to this tale.
I wouldn’t even say it would be a good thing if parliament could hold the government to account. If the right government were elected, it would just get in the way. But, lets pretend that our current government aren’t ideologically dangerous, they’re still a bunch of incompetant liars!
The issues with trade union bill are one example, as is their refusal to admit that their claim that workers will be compensated by the living wage for their loss of tax credit has been proven false by the IFS. They’re not just ideologically problematic, they’re actually useless. If ever a goverment needed scruitiny, it’s this one. We need the House of Lords at the moment.
However, Osborne’s talk of “unlected Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs blocking measures we were elected to enact” forbodes ill for the Lords, as have other moves by the government. I’m not sure the government know what they’re going to do, but they’re going to do something. This reform will not be its abolition and the institution of an elected upper chamber (what probably should happen). It will be some sort of attempt to tie its hands and take away a few more of the roadblocks standing in the way of Conservative incompetence.
This brings us onto why the Labour, rather than LibDem, motion was clever, and why the following tweet by the Green Party leader was characteristically naïve.
— Natalie Bennett (@natalieben) October 26, 2015
Labour’s motion to delay the cuts, whilst forcing the government to respond to the IFS, acts within the “constitutional” conventions of the house. As such, it makes it that little bit harder for the Tories to whinge and take revenge. They will do so, but tying the House of Lords’ hands will do us less damage than flooding the chamber with Tory MPs to mirror the representation in the commons, as uber-Tory, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has suggested, the inevitable result of blocking the bill.
We need the Lords at the moment, even though their days are numbered and they are an embarrasment. Because of this embarrasment, the Tories will find it easy to win the argument, in spite of their meagre mandate.