Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Constitutional Codswallop

The Conservative party PR machine tried, for once with only modest success, to divert attention from the nuts and bolts of the consequences of the proposed reduction in tax credits. Instead  they tried  to focus attention on the constitutional issue of whether or not the Lords had the right to block or defer the changes. There was even talk of a constitutional crisis and, would you believe, the danger of involving the Queen in a political issue.

Happily the Lords ignored them and went right ahead.

However, the PR machine keeps on trying.   Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP, son of the late Honourable William, spouts of the possibility of creating 100 extra Troy peers to bring the Lords into line, and David Cameron hints darkly  of a "rapid review" of their powers and functions. Well ,of course, he had his chance when his then partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, proposed democratic reform which his party  had promised to support, and he bottled it.  Cameron is quick to use what he sees as the pejorative term "unelected," but if the second chamber remains  "unelected" whose fault is that?

The Conservatives make much  of the argument that the Tax Credit proposals have financial implications, and the Lords do not normally interfere with these.  However, as explained in the previous post, George Osborne himself failed to include the proposals in his Finance Bill,and instead submitted them in something called as Statutory Instrument, presumably to avoid full scrutiny and debate in the Commons.  So serves him right.

Lords defeats and delays are not all that unusual but it is curious that they happen a lot more when there is a Labour government  than when the Tories are in power.  From 1975 to 1979 (Labour ) there were 240 defeats, an average of 60 a year.  From 1979 to 97 (Tory years) there were just two more, 242, but over 18 years that averaged out at only 13 per year.  Then  in the 13 years of Labour rule  from 1997 to 2010 the figure jumped up to 528, an average of 40 a year.*

So the Tories are getting a dose of their own medicine, and, like most bullies, when the tables are turned, they cry "foul."

*  Figures derived from  http://www.parliament.uk/about/faqs/house-of-lords-faqs/lords-govtdefeats/


  1. he had his chance when his then partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, proposed democratic reform which his party had promised to support

    But surely an elected second house would be even more willing to throw its weight around and block government legislation? After all, it would see itself as having democratic legitimacy at least equal to the commons. It is hard, for example, to imagine an elected second house being long content to abide by the conditions of the Parliament Acts: it would soon be demanding the right to vote on budgets and the right to outright reject, not just delay, primary legislation.

    If the second chamber was elected you would end up with the kind of dysfunctionality seen in the United States, where one party has a majority in one house but not the other, and the resultant conflict makes the country an international laughing stock.

    Whatever the fallout is from this, and leaving aside the issue of the Chancellor's tactical blunder in (ab)using the statutory Instrument system for this rather than including it in the Finance Bill, an elected second chamber would make the problem of inter-house conflict worse, not better, and so is definitely not the route to take.

    1. Most major democracies have two chamber parliaments, with the second chamber elected on a different basis to the first (eg as in the US where the Senate represents the States rather than the populous). One of the purposes of a second chambers is prevent, or at least limit, the possible abuse of power by the first, or to put it another way, to avoid the “tyranny of the majority.”

      This is particularly important in the UK, where, because of our dysfunctional electoral system, the Commons has a majority based on only 37% of the votes cast, and the support of only 24% of those entitle to volte.

      On this slim mandate the Conservative government is throwing its weight around in an arrogant and absurd manner. Cuts to tax credits for the poorest whilst at the same time cutting income and inheritance taxes for the richest and profits taxes for companies are but one example. The outrageous attempts to limit the rights of workers to strike and to reduce the Labour Party’s income from the Unions (whilst doing nothing to limit their own income from companies) are another.

      One definition of democracy is “government by consent of the governed” and it is quite clear that the governed have not consented to much of what the Tories are trying to do. A second chamber with limited and defined powers is one of the necessary checks and balances, along with the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech and assembly, a free and balance press, which add up to an effective democracy.

      The House of Lords as at present constituted is not ideal, either in terms of its composition or its powers, but for the moment it is what we’ve got and its members are right to perform as best they can within the limits currently operating.

      Incidentally a letter in today’s Guardian (from David Horler of Thame) points out that with a membership of which 33% are Tories and 67% aren’t, the Lords is actually more representative of public opinion that is the Commons.

    2. But the point of an election, in the eyes of the UK population at least, is to choose who gets to run the country for the next few years before they are judged on their record and either re-appointed to run things some more, or chucked out in favour of the other lot.

      How could that work if you have another house trying to thwart the government? How the population know who to blame, and therefore whether to re-appoint or chuck the government out at the next opportunity?

      You use the US as an example but I would say the US is an example of why having bicameral legislatures, and indeed separating legislature and executive, is a bad idea because it leads inevitably to the kind of dysfunction recently seen where the various houses and branches go to outright war with each other and make the country a global laughing stock.

      One of the purposes of a second chambers is prevent, or at least limit, the possible abuse of power by the first, or to put it another way, to avoid the “tyranny of the majority.”

      But the second chamber won't stop that, because a majority of the electorate will have a majority of the second chamber, especially if it is elected on a proportional basis.

      What stops tyranny in a democracy is the ability to judge a government on its record and then chuck it out if it's not performing — which is exactly what would be confused by having a second chamber which is not just a revising chamber but one which regards itself as having equal (or probably, in the eyes of some supercilious Liberal Democrats, greater, if it's elected by PR) legitimacy than the first chamber.

  2. Of course, apart from dear old "Custom and Convention" there is nothing to stop the government behaving like a tyranny for 5 years. From my long ago political studies - unfortunately not much has changed over the past 50 years or so in political terms - the example given was that the government could immediately pass a law saying that everyone should wear green clothes and very little could be done about it. ( Possible bargaining point: I would be OK with blue.)