By Amina Saddiq
Desperate to overcome the impression of being mired in financial corruption and political bankruptcy, the government is pressing ahead with reform of the House of Lords. House of Commons leader Jack Straw is pushing for a 50/50 elected/appointed second chamber, but the various possible ratios seem to be exciting a bizarre amount of controversy and enthusiasm among Labour MPs.
Although a stronger elected element might be mildly preferable to a body totally stuffed with Blairite and Tory cronies (though only just if Straw gets his way and members are elected for fifteen year terms), the socialist position on this issue is clear. We are against the existence of any second chamber, because we want a system of government over which the working class can exercise the greatest possible pressure and the greatest possible degree of control from below. There is a difference between accountability in this sense of democratic pressure and control, and a bureaucratic system of “checks and balances” designed to prevent a strong popular majority from carrying out radical reforms.
The idea that the House of Lords acts as a guarantor of democratic liberties is spurious: they may have this or that disagreement with the government over civil liberties, but when was the last time the m’luds sided with workers or other radical forces in any significant struggle?
In any case, the increasingly authoritarian character of the British government stems not from the inadequacies of the second chamber, but firstly with its capitalist commitments and ties, and secondly the fact that it rests on an executive which has grown out of all proportion to and completely dominates the legislature, ie the democratically elected representatives of the people. For consistent democrats, the solution is not checks and balances, but the maximisation of control from below, through mechanisms by which constituents can control their representatives and representatives control the government.
The working class needs to have something to say about this. The revolutionary left needs to arm the workers’ movement with a programme for the radicalisation of democracy as part of the struggle for working-class power. As Trotsky put it, writing about France in 1934:
“Meanwhile, as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the bourgeoisie.
“However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to ‘democratic” socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793.
“Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion!
“Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!
“A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.
“This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power.
“Workers adhering to democratic socialism must understand that it is not enough to defend democracy; democracy must be regained.”
Against Blair and Straw’s pseudo-democratic reforms, socialists must fight for the most radical and consistent democracy possible. Abolish the House of Lords!