Brendan O’Neill

Abolish the Lords!

Abolish the Lords!
(Photo: Parliament UK)
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So three million quid gets you a seat in the House of Lords? That’s according to the latest revelations about our sleazy second chamber. According to a Sunday Times and Open Democracy investigation, people who give big bucks to the Conservative party are virtually assured a seat on the red benches. Wealthy benefactors seem to be ‘guaranteed a peerage if they take on the temporary role as the party treasurer and increase their own donations beyond £3m’, the report says.

It stacks up. Fifteen out of 16 Tory party treasurers have been offered a seat in the Lords. And 22 of the party’s main financial backers, including those who have doubled up as party treasurer, have been offered seats. It stinks of ‘cash-for-access culture’ in the Tory establishment, says Labour. ‘You can buy your way into the Lords?!’, journalists cry out, horrified.

Here’s the thing, though – why are we shocked? Why, after all these years, are we still taken aback by the whiff of corruption that seems permanently to hover over the second chamber? Isn’t the Lords corrupt virtually by definition? After all, this is one of the most undemocratic parliamentary chambers in the world. It is utterly unaccountable to the people. Its peers are given their authority not by us, the people, but by the favours and indulgence and nepotistic antics of the elites. And that is always, but always, a recipe for corrupt or at least questionable behaviour.

We can look agog at the fact that people who can afford to stump up a few million quid for the Tory party are offered seats in the second chamber, but how else are they supposed to get in there? Most people cannot stand for election to the Lords. You and I, dear reader, will never get in (unless there’s a peer reading this, in which case carry on reading to the end to see why you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing). There is no fair or democratic way into the Lords. Literally the only way in is by being well-connected, obsequious or rich. Some are probably all three.

It is not a coincidence that the Lords seems permanently embroiled in scandal. Cash for peerages, peers promising to do the bidding of wealthy businessmen, Tory treasurers getting a shortcut to the second chamber. This all springs from the undemocratic nature of the Lords. In the absence of the absurd hereditary principle that once determined much of the membership of the Lords and of any democratic process for deciding who gets to sit in the second chamber, it is inevitable that fat wallets and sharp elbows will play the key role in stuffing that House.

I think we sometimes forget, as a nation, just how preposterous the House of Lords is. To have an unelected parliamentary chamber in the 21st century is simply extraordinary. Or in any century, for that matter. It was in the 18th century that Thomas Paine, the greatest Briton, described the Lords as ‘the remains of aristocratic tyranny’. And 250 years later we’re still stuck with it! It might not be very aristocratic anymore, following the House of Lords Act of 1999 that booted out most of the hereditaries. But it is as undemocratic and unaccountable, and beyond the reach of mere voting mortals, as it was in Paine’s day.

Some people, even some on the left, say we need the Lords because every now and then it keeps in check the craziness of the Commons. These cool-headed peers push back on laws that are rash or illiberal and that’s a good thing, they say. No it isn’t. I would rather live under a bad law drawn up by people I have some democratic control over than a better law shaped by people I have no authority over at all.

Remember what Tony Benn once said – how he’d rather have a bad parliament than a good king. I feel the same about the Lords. Give me life under an iffy Commons over life under a ‘decent’ Lords any day of the week, because at least we can do something about the people in the Commons. We can kick them out. The peers, in contrast, are there for life. You can do nothing about them. That is a grave offence against your democratic rights.

To see how undemocratic the Lords is, consider the existence of Lib Dem peers. Voters have made very clear their disdain for the Liberal Democrats over the past decade. In the 2010 general election, the Lib Dems won 57 seats in the Commons. In 2015 they won just eight. There were tiny upward blips more recently – 12 seats in 2017 and 11 in 2019 – but in general there has been a democratic rejection of this failing, unconvincing party. And yet still the Lib Dems have 84 peers in the Lords – and they will be there until they die. You and I can do nothing about it. This makes a mockery of democracy.

It’s time to get real about the Lords. Let’s quit all the talk of reform. You can’t polish a you-know-what. The only true democratic solution is abolition. The people should at the very least have a say. So how about it, Boris: a referendum on the Lords? The question would be simple: Retain or Abolish. Such a vote would galvanise the public and stir up democratic debate. It would enrich the political life of this country to an extraordinary degree. Let us plebs sit in judgment for once.