Democracy in Danger: The Real Cost of the House of Lords

Isadora Lynch is a TPN Columnist and an undergraduate Politics student at the University of Lancaster.

As we creep closer to the general election, we are learning of more backroom deals and heated coalition discussions occurring in Westminster.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has stood down candidates for his party in over three-hundred constituencies, claiming that the decision to do so was in order to create an alliance with the Conservative party, which may avoid dividing the leave vote and handing election victory to Labour. More concerningly, Farage also claimed that Boris Johnson offered him a seat in the House of Lords in exchange for giving his candidates the order to stand down. Despite Michael Gove’s denial that such an offer was made, and Farage’s remarking that he would not accept the title, the possibility that peerages could be exchanged for political favours is a sobering reminder that Britain cannot be a true democracy while the House of Lords exists.

The House of Lords is an unrepresentative and unaccountable body of unelected politicians, many of whom are in influential positions because of blood: hereditary peers inherit power from their aristocratic ancestors. To call Britain a ‘democracy’ is to ignore that one chamber of our parliament is still rewarding wealth and land ownership with undeserved political power. The landed gentry have no mandate to legislate, yet the British people are subject to laws that the Lords have influenced or proposed. If these laws don’t work, we have no mechanisms to remove them from power. Democracy is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people; the House of Lords is the government of the people, by the elites, for the elites.

Defenders of the Upper House argue that a series of reforms in recent years means the Lords can no longer pose a serious threat to the democratic decision-making that occurs in the House of Commons. The peers’ powers have been limited to proposing, debating, amending and temporarily delaying legislation by the Parliament Acts. Peers are powerless against money bills and the Salisbury Convention prevents them from challenging bills proposed in the governing party’s manifesto.

A change in pay has reflected this reduction in power: peers are no longer salaried but can claim around £300 per day in expenses. A cost report produced by The Institute for Government revealed that peer expenses cost Britain £18.1 million between 2017 and 2018. Taxpayers are funding fine dining for the elites while in 2018, foodbanks gave out over one million emergency food parcels to those in need. It is outrageous to allow these unelected officials the opportunity to claim money ‘in recognition of their work for the public benefit’ when the public would benefit greater from the dedication of those funds to the reduction of poverty

Boris Johnson’s alleged attempt to bribe Nigel Farage with a life peerage is a shocking example of how the House of Lords can be abused, but we must remember that this corruption isn’t confined to the Conservatives: the 2006-2007 Cash for Honour’s scandal led to an investigation into a series of Tony Blair’s nominees for life peerages, as they had allegedly loaned the Labour party money and been given places on the red benches in return.

Life peers can be nominated because of their work for the public good, but a study by Oxford University of nominations for peerages between 2005 and 2014 revealed that there is a ‘significant’ relationship between donating to a political party and receiving a nomination. The political power of the Lords is still not a privilege granted by the people: it can be used as a bargaining chip in order to pacify potential dissenters with impressive titles, exchanged for financial generosity and offered as a tasty treat for party lapdogs who display obedient behaviour.

In 2019, traces of the medieval feudal system still permeate our political structures. The common people are not lowly, unintelligent serfs who need insulating from poor policy ideas by wealthy superiors. We have access to more information than ever before and can hold our representatives to account more rigorously as a result. The House of Lords is an archaic institution that has been allowed to drain money from our country, despite several commitments from party leaders to further reform. I have my concerns regarding Jeremy Corbyn as a leader, but his 2018 commitment to completely abolishing the Upper Chamber cannot be viewed as a controversial or radical policy- it is simply common sense. A democracy with an entirely unelected chamber in its parliament is no democracy at all. We need to admit that Britain’s political system is in a state of democratic crisis, and the abolition of the House of Lords is the only way forward.

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