Feudalism First!

Gladstone represented as Samson destroying the House of Lords. Credit: Tom Merry / Wellcome Collection.

Glyn Ford says it’s time to abolish the ball and chain that’s the House of Lords

Britain’s early worldly reformation gifted it primacy amongst Europe’s Industrial Revolutions. For unlike those who followed there was not the same strict necessity of razing the past to create the compelling institutional architecture for that future. The English lurked in limbo betwixt and between, a capitalist state with feudal remnants of governance in the form of a hard monarchy and the aristocrats’ House of Lords. This deformation continued across the centuries despite the slow democratisation of the Commons until its final arrival in 1950 with the abolition of the University seats. Now a long quarter century after the final collapse of the Soviet Union’s deeply flawed socialist project and the end of its Empire there is the drive to change Western electoral systems to make them congruent with the new politics brought about by the splintering of class into fractions of race and gender, wealth and interest. 

I sympathise with the push for Proportional Representation (PR) even while rejecting the notion that out there somewhere is some magic voting system that in a trice will solve our problems. All imaginable systems have been tried from pure PR to Japan’s quirky multi-member constituencies with single non-transferable vote, open lists, closed lists and in between lists. In Europe some early PR adopters – for instance Greece and Italy – are in retreat back towards majoritarianism with winning parties garnering a bonus block of seats to provide stable majorities and governments. Why does PR for uniquely the House of Commons obsesses the British left? Appreciating the need to manipulate electoral systems to reflect the new psephological realities of late capitalism is one thing, privileging that over tackling the stifling and destructive role of long suffered feudal hangovers is another.

The House of Lords is a bloated undemocratic abomination and a textbook example of political malfeasance. Either or both of these puts to the question whether it is possible to see the UK as a full democracy. I was the EU Chief Election Observer in Indonesia in 2004 and made it clear that adding a block of Army officers to top up the Parliament would result in Brussels rejecting the democratic nature of the electoral system. I was just grateful that those I was pressing failed to counter with Britain’s more egregious instance. Imagine the response in Brussels today if one of the throng of eager applicants attempted to slide into membership while retaining an unelected parliamentary chamber.

The House of Lords membership is a distended eight hundred plus, making it the world’s second largest assembly after China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). These are the flotsam and jetsam of history ancient and modern. There are still 92 hereditary peers and the rest are various versions and cabals of Tony’s cronies, Cameron’s cuddlies or Boris’ family, “friends” and past amours. As Gordon Brown’s 2022 Report for the Party A New Britain: Renewing Our Democracy and Rebuilding Our Economy said the 22 biggest Tory donors became members for £54 million. Some do good work, as do members of the NPC in Beijing. Some apologists argue the Lords serves its purpose acting as experts massaging vital legislation to fit all. If they are it is more good luck than good judgement. If that is their raison d’être there is always corporatism to do the job properly. Few Lords outshine their compatriots in the Commons, and fewer still represent anything but themselves and their patrons. Maybe the crown should cut to the chase and just publish a price list.

Worse the Lords is a political ball and chain limiting Labour’s ability to act. It is the greatest single example of voter repression bar none. American Republicans must be green with envy. Power with no votes! With its built in Conservative majority, it can systematically delay and disrupt Labour government in a way it would never do against the Tories. The odd rebellion over Europe or Rwanda is a bagatelle compared to what it has and would inflict again on any radical government. The abolition of the Lords is unfinished business for the Labour Party stretching back generations. As Brown reported in 2022 support for the Lords runs at 12%, a level Rishi Sunak has so far not fallen to. Yet the Party – each time it comes to the crunch – seemingly suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, emotionally attached while held hostage by their captors.  

What do we put in its place? Nothing – there are plenty of countries whose unicameral Parliaments work as well as, if not better, than the current system in the UK. Voters are hardly tugging at the bit demanding yet more political institutions and elections. If we have to have a new institution – please not a “reformed” House of Lords which sells the pass all too easily for another futile tinkering – a maximum 200 seat Assembly of the Nations and Regions elected on a PR basis at fixed five year intervals with a two term limit and a 10% threshold.

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