BACK IN 1649 the House of Lords was abolished. The revolutionary parliament, which had just tried and executed Charles Stuart, the former king, declared that the House of Lords was “useless and dangerous” adding, for good measure, that “No Peer of this Land, not being Elected, Qualified, and sitting in Parliament as aforesaid, shall claim, have or make use of any privilege of Parliament, either in relation to his Person, Quality or Estate, Any Law, Usage or Custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”
That the Lords came back with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and we are still arguing over its “reform” today perhaps shows how little we have progressed in constitutional terms since Oliver Cromwell’s day.
Though no longer the exclusive preserve of wealthy landowners and the bishops of the Church of England, the House of Lords continues as an institution whose main constitutional role is to act as a brake on the elected House of Commons.
The proposed Coalition reform, which has been stalled by a back-bench Tory revolt, preserves its reactionary role and merely seeks to change the manner of its representation. Though the hereditary peers would entirely go the bishops would keep their seats along with a number of appointed peers, while the rest would be elected by proportional representation.
This, the Liberal-Democrats believe, would guarantee them enough seats to hold the balance of power in the reformed Upper House and give them a secure base in Parliament, regardless of their position in the House of Commons. And this, no doubt, is why some Lib-Dems are threatening to spike the Coalition if the premier, David Cameron, doesn’t pull his rebels back into line.
They believe that the threat to oppose the proposed constituency boundary changes that would reduce the House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats and give the Tories 20 more easy seats to win at the next election can force Cameron to back down.
But there’s little Cameron can do. The 100 or so Tory rebels are drawn largely from the Eurosceptic bloc that is using Lord’s reform as part of their drive to break Britain’s link with the European Union. The Liberal-Democrats, who historically have long reflected the views of the pro-EU wing of the bourgeoisie, stand in their way and the Tory Eurosceptics would doubtless be glad to see the back of them.
Some of them probably wouldn’t mind seeing Cameron out as well on the calculation that a Tory defeat at the next election would lead to Cameron’s replacement by a hard-line Tory Eurosceptic and a weak Labour government that would be in no position to further the European project even if it wanted to.
David Cameron and Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg are pledging their undying loyalty to play the crisis down. At the same time Cameron has made it clear that if the Coalition does break down he will try to continue to lead a Tory minority government, which could survive unless brought down by a vote of no-confidence until the scheduled general election in 2015.
The future of the Coalition remains to be seen and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to push the crisis to the edge until after their national conference later in the year. In the meantime the unions must take the initiative to push for the adoption of a working class agenda in the next Labour manifesto.
Whatever happens the agenda must be set by the labour movement and not by the intrigues of bourgeois politicians jockeying for power in Westminster.
Labour can win the next election and the sooner the better but there must be concrete pledges to end austerity and restore the public sector, the NHS and the education system and repeal the anti-union legislation that restricts free collective bargaining and artificially keeps wages down. All of this can be paid for by restoring tax levels to 1979 levels and cutting the arms bill.
Labour can win if it pledges to supports the just demands of the working class and not just the platitudes about “responsibility, community, fairness, equality and justice” that Ed Miliband confined himself to at the Durham Miners’ Gala last weekend.