My constituents are struggling badly as the deflationary effects of George Osborne’s austerity Budgets and 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review bite ever harder and deeper. Thirty two jobless people now chase every job vacancy advertised in Glasgow North East, real wages have fallen every month David Cameron has been Prime Minister, and Scottish median incomes, including housing costs, fell by 6% in the first year in office of the Coalition, the biggest slump in incomes since the dying days of the last Tory Government in 1995/6. Regressive tax hikes, such as that on VAT to 20%, the brutal clubbing which communities face from the spending cuts by Governments in both London and Edinburgh, the chronic lack of social housing and full-time work, are all contributing to a toxic cocktail of the worst slump in ordinary people’s living standards for 90 years. As the Resolution Foundation have shown, the link between economic growth, productivity and rising incomes for working and middle class people is broken, perhaps permanently. The High Pay Commission report reveals that during this longest slump since the 1870s, while the rich elite are chillaxing at country suppers, the poor are resorting to food parcels and payday lending just to get by. Huge economic and social issues for Parliament to get to grips with.
Some in our movement argue in these circumstances, major political reform, such as introducing an elected second chamber, is therefore an unnecessary distraction. Others say we should oppose the House of Lords Reform Bill to attempt to scupper the Coalition, likely to be ensconced in power until 2015 under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. I respect their views, but I believe they’re wrong.
In the second General Election of 1910, at the height of the tussle between the Commons and the Lords, Keir Hardie stood for re-election in the Merthyr Tydfil constituency on a manifesto of introducing a minimum wage, home rule, votes for women, and “to end not mend” the House of Lords. At the last General Election, Labour’s grassroots members and the National Policy Forum supported putting to the people in a referendum a wholly elected second chamber rather than abolition as the answer to the democratic chasm of the unelected Lords. In doing so, Labour was as true to its values and its roots in advocating major democratic reform alongside greater social and economic justice as Hardie had been a century before.
As the Executive has tightened its grip over the Commons, the need for a second chamber to offer a greater check and balance has become increasingly vital. We need only heed lessons from Scotland, where the SNP has been able to exert complete command over the single chamber Scottish Parliament and its committees at Holyrood through its overall majority gained through 45% of the votes at the 2011 Scottish General Election, even under a system of proportional representation.
The present unelected second chamber at Westminster is a tragic hangover of a medieval era of democratic illegitimacy, mushrooming in size from 666 members in 1999 when nine out of ten of the hereditary peers were ejected under Labour’s reforms, to over 830 now, as Cameron packs it with Coalition peers at a rate unprecedented in recent times. Despite subjecting the Government’s health and welfare plans to sustained scrutiny, the Lords defeated the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government in only one division in five in the last Parliamentary session, whereas in the final session of the previous Parliament, it defeated the Labour Government in as many as one division in every three. In 1908, Lloyd George called the Lords not the watchdog of the constitution, but the poodle of the Tory leader and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
In its composition, the Lords is utterly unrepresentative of the modern United Kingdom. It fails to provide a sufficiently strong voice to the different nations and regions of the UK, as well as working class people, young people, the disabled, women (barely one in five peers are female), ethnic minorities and the LGBT community.
The Coalition’s plans are far from perfect. A fifteen year non-renewable term is an odd kind of democratic mandate to confer on an elected member. They do not tackle the problem of absentee members. They would reserve seats in Parliament for clergy from the Church of England, joining Iran as one of only two legislatures in the world to continue to guarantee religious representation. They say nothing about the status of the present conventions on the relations between both chambers or on the primacy of the Commons, or about a single-party Government’s election manifesto commitments.
At Second Reading, Labour should stand up for the principle of a completely democratic second chamber, and press for it when we can. MPs should seek to improve this Bill through full debate at Committee Stage, and constitutional change of this magnitude requires the public to have their say in a referendum, as supported by the majority report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Bill. But in the end, a second chamber 80% democratically elected is far, far better than continuing with one that is 0% elected. It would be utterly risible to leave in place any longer an anti-democratic chamber containing 92 hereditary peers, with vacancies filled in bizarre parodies of by-elections with electorates comprising as few as two peers, and the public completely excluded.
Labour can take the fight to the Tory-led Government on the economy and its dismantling of the welfare state, and advocate long-overdue political reform at the same time. Our history teaches us this – our values and principles should lead us to go for it now.
William Bain is Labour MP for Glasgow North East, and Shadow Scotland Office Minister