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The House of Lords

Cheering Greets Democracy's Defeat

"Although the House of Lords is less powerful than the House of Commons, it is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom Parliament, and has an integral part to play in the creation of the laws that govern our country – it is not powerless." White Paper

Britain’s legislators-for-life left no doubt about their contempt for democratic rights when they voted on 14 March 2007 by a majority of 361 to stop the people electing any of the members of Parliament's second chamber. Only 121 opposed this decision while, in another vote, a mere 122 supported the election of all legislators.

The feudal legislative chamber was packed for the vote. According to the Financial Times the unelected legislators "vociferously expressed" their opposition to the decision of elected members of parliament that they should lose their privileged part in law making. But "the normally solemn chamber reverberated with cheers" when the "Lords" voted by 409 to 46 against even a half-elected chamber.

The BBC predicted that this overwhelming rejection of democracy would lead to "months of parliamentary gridlock". The vote is likely to help Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons who has responsibility for reforming the Lords, put together a compromise deal that would leave many unelected legislators in Parliament. Mr. Straw would like only 50% to be elected.

The next step will be a reconvening by Mr. Straw of the multi-party committee that has responsibility for reform of the second chamber. The House of Commons could impose its will on the legislators-for-life but this would take a large amount of effort and time. Alternatively the Labour Party might put a commitment to an all-elected parliament in its next election manifesto. If it then won the election the "Lords" would find resistance even harder to justify. Or the Commons might compromise by offering a partially elected second chamber as the government had wished in the first place.

The vote by the legislators-for-life followed the surprising and historic 113 majority of elected legislators voting on 7 February for an all-elected second legislative chamber. After 700 years of hereditary and appointed "Lords", a taboo was broken and the representatives of the people finally agreed that democracy is better than feudalism.

The recommendations of what are known as "the great and the good" that the people not be allowed to exercise a basic democratic right finally seemed to count for nothing. This showed how the people benefit, if only on occasion, from legislators who are not entirely independent of the people and not entirely free to put their own beliefs above the wishes of the people.

But a legislative chamber independent of the people is what the government wanted from reform. Although a "free vote" of MPs was allowed, the government had made clear its preference for a chamber in which only 50% of the legislators would be chosen by the people. The other half would be appointed by a state commission. Of these 30% would be nominated by the parties already represented in Parliament. Fifteen year terms of office, with no right to stand for another term and a ban on retiring legislators becoming MPs, were intended to reinforce legislators’ independence from the people.

Then and Now

"You must also deal better with us concerning the Lords than you have done. You only are chosen by the people; and therefore in you only is the power of binding the whole nation by making, altering or abolishing of laws. You have therefore prejudiced us in acting so as if you could not make a law without both the royal assent of the king (so you are pleased to express yourselves) and the assent of the Lords".
Attributed to Richard Overton. A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens.
July 1646

"In a modern democracy, it is difficult to justify a second chamber where there is no elected element – where the public has no direct input into who sits in it".
Jack Straw, Leader of House of Commons.

Election by the "party list" system, used for European elections, was also recommended This seemed designed to strengthen the parties at the expense of voters, who would be obliged to vote for one or another list of candidates from a single party. Voters would not be able to split their votes between parties and would not be able to vote for one candidate of a particular party of whom they approved while withholding their vote from one they did not wish to support.

The government's wish to continue the privileged representation of the Church of England in the legislature was also put in doubt by the vote. It had recommended that the number of free passes given to the Anglican Church should be reduced but not eliminated. Other religions and secular citizens would have had no guarantee of representation. The government’s poor substitute for democracy was the possibility of requiring "diversity" in the candidates parties put forward for election. In setting out this proposal the government claimed that disestablishment of the state Church was no longer on the table and that even non-Anglicans recognised the legitimacy of the Anglicans’ privileged status. But if all legislators are elected there will be no guaranteed seats for Anglican ayatollahs.

Free passes to Parliament for retired supreme court judges, proposed by the government, were also endangered by the vote.

If the government had had its way democracy would have been, and may still be, delayed for another forty years. The only legislators-for-life to lose their seats immediately were to be the hereditary ones. The others would be allowed to stay until they died or retired. One hundred and eleven MPs disgraced themselves by voting to allow even the hereditary legislators to keep their seats.

The only unequivocally democratic government recommendation was that the legislators should no longer have the feudal title of "Lord".

The clear vote was a surprise. A previous attempt by MPs to agree on reform of the second chamber had resulted in confusion. Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and likely new Prime Minister Gordon Brown were opposed to popular election. The opposition Conservative Party, which had wanted only 80% of legislators to be elected, was more "radical" than the ruling Labour Party.

However, some MPs may have voted for an all-elected second chamber in the hope that this reform was less likely in the long run to be enacted into law.

The difficulties ahead were immediately apparent. The lack of enthusiasm for democracy in the government is likely to mean that legislation to allow the vote to become law will not be given priority. It does not want a chamber that the Executive cannot control as it controls the Commons when a "free vote" is not allowed. This vote must have reinforced its fear of what might happen if legislators could act independently of the Executive.

Most commentators expect the legislators-for-life to arrogantly sabotage the wishes of the elected representatives of the people for as long as they can. Like burglars with the right to decide what the sentence for breaking and entering should be, they are allowed by the constitution to use their undemocratic privileges to obstruct the will of the people.

Legislator-for-life David Putnam told Sky News after the vote that the House of Commons should expect the "Lords" to block legislation until it had a mandate from the electorate. Needless to say, the legislators-for-life do not have and have never had a mandate for a single decision they have made.

Republic, Britain's largest anti-monarchy group declared that the "logical conclusion" of the vote would be the abolition of another feudal institution, the monarchy.

"In a mature democracy - particularly in one that has so preached the virtues of government by the ballot box to the rest of the world - an approach that relies on the judgements of individual electors must be preferable to one that does not trust them. MPs should vote tomorrow for a fully elected upper house." Financial Times

pointerThe story so far

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