Bulldoze this affront to our democracy

Published by The i paper (12th December, 2019)

Last week, Sir Keir Starmer announced his intention to abolish the House of Lords if Labour wins the next election, saying the institution was “indefensible” and needed urgent reform to restore trust in politics. He was right: the swollen upper chamber is an affront to democracy. Yet his rare policy proposal sparked a predictable chorus of dissent from some of the smug cronies sitting on the red benches, who trotted out the usual hoary arguments to protect their comfortable perches in Parliament. They claim it is a key part of our unwritten constitution, that it works well, it is filled with experts and besides, there are more important challenges facing the country.

Already there are suggestions Starmer is back-pedalling, with talk of “consultation” instead of firm action on abolition. Aides reportedly fear such a bold constitutional move might drain political capital and snarl up their programme so there are fears tough talk may lead again to minimalist action. But the Labour leader has pledged to act in his first term as prime minister – so let us hope he shows backbone since this bloated body shames our society. The House of Lords symbolises so much that is wrong with our country with its open embrace of corruption, its grotesque lack of accountability, its institutionalisation of cronyism and inequality. The sooner it is drastically reformed, the better for Britain.

Just look at the latest scandal involving a lingerie saleswoman who once boasted to an elected MP on social media that “I’m a Baroness for life, whereas u will be out of ur MP job in no time.” Baroness Mone, appointed a life peer in 2015, appears to have used her Tory connections to make many millions for her family by exploiting the pandemic. Journalists have exposed how she set up a firm to supply critical protective gear for the NHS, then won £203m contracts that made massive profits. Yet the gowns they supplied were faulty, sparking a legal tussle. And claims that “she did not benefit financially” seem to have been shredded by leaked documents – and the purchase of a private jet soon after a mountain of cash landed in a linked offshore company.

The shamed Tory peer has taken leave of absence, allegedly to “clear her name.” This means she cannot attend debates or claim the daily £332 allowance – but it also ensures Mone is no longer bound by the rules to declare her financial and business interests. This sickening saga stinks. Bear in mind it only emerged due to the efforts of journalists such as The Guardian’s David Conn in uncovering the damning evidence, once again highlighting the disturbing lack of effective regulation in the Lords. And this is simply the latest obscenity to emerge from an institution that is filled with too many people who obtained lifetime seats in Parliament through sleazy use of cash and contacts.

Britain is the only democracy on the planet that blatantly sells posh titles and places in Parliament. Starmer is backing reform proposals from Gordon Brown, who now complains about “cronyism, corruption, abuse of power…and tainted honours” yet happily backed a prime minister who gave peerages to 25 party donors. The Tories have followed suit, one party chairman admitting that “once you pay your £3m, you get your peerage.” This corruption is so overt that even Boris Johnson wrote a column on “the putrefaction of the honours system” – before intensifying the stench with his own appointments that included Lord Cruddas, a party treasurer caught by undercover reporters selling access to Downing Street, yet handed a peerage in defiance of concerns from the impotent Lords Appointments Commission.

None of this stops our politicians from complaining about corruption in developing countries, with Britain – the country that also washes the world’s dirty cash – even hypocritically hosting a “landmark global summit”  on this issue in 2016. Corruption, however, is merely the most outrageous flaw. There is also the dispiriting cronyism that hands so many aides and MPs a precious berth for life in Parliament, often despite their ejection by the electorate. The latest minnow draped in ermine after the historically short premiership of Liz Truss is Stewart Jackson, a hardline Brexiter who, during an inauspicious 12 years as MP for Peterborough before being turfed out by voters, had to hand back expenses claimed for work on his swimming pool.

He will join more than 170 other former MPs in the Lords, given all the perks and privileges of Parliament in perpetuity. This tide of toadies, pals and patsies means there are now a ridiculous 785 peers; only China’s chamber overseeing almost one-fifth of the global population is bigger. Soon scores more will be appointed, legacies of the last two dismal Tory prime ministers. Yet for all previous talk of reform and people’s peers, it seems even more abhorrent that there are another 92 men in parliament on basis of inherited titles. No women. Just blokes such as Frederick Curzon, the 7th Earl Howe, a former banker who has held a front bench role with the Tories for more than three decades and is currently deputy leader of the Lords while his party talks of levelling up and tackling inequality.

Even the retention in Parliament of 26 Church of England bishops in a country that is no longer majority Christian, let alone Anglican, is profoundly wrong. The only valid debate is over the risible institution’s replacement. Personally, I would favour an elected and transparent appointments body to ensure the elevation of genuine leaders in their field, along with some reflection of regional leaders and perhaps a ballot among all citizens to increase the diversity of opinion – combined with far tougher regulation and rules on accountability. But we need to stop seeing the House of Lords as a quirky anachronism of minimal importance. It is an offensive symbol of political failure, an insult to any sense of fairness and a showcase for corruption, cronyism and upper-class elitism that demeans our country.

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