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I wonder what my younger self would’ve made of the House of Lords – and its hairdryers

It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting.

The Norman porch of the House of Lords. Photo: Getty

I sat in the House of Lords the other day. Ben and I went for lunch with his godfather, the actor Brian Rix, now Lord Rix, who at 90 years old is still the funniest of men and great company. After we’d eaten, Brian gave us a guided tour, ending at the door of the actual House. A few whispered words were exchanged with a security guard – I swear I heard the phrase “Everything but the Girl” muttered under his breath – and we were ushered through the giant, Hogwarts-like oak door and on to two chairs at the back of the chamber, from where we gazed at the red padded benches, the gold throne and Lord Sir Alan Sugar asking a question about VAT.

Though we stayed for all of five minutes, it was bizarre and thrilling to be there and, slightly tipsy from lunch (as, I imagine, were most of the peers), I felt indulgent and benevolent about the set-up. It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting. The aged fustiness of the surroundings and participants added to this impression: during the time we sat there, I heard no one say anything comprehensible and you could easily believe that they were all engaged in some dreary matter of local business – planning permission for the golf club, or the relocation of an incinerator.

Following Brian’s signal, we crept out, stopping on the way to pat the bouncy sniffer dog, which an hour earlier had been checking the empty chamber. (For explosives? Drugs?) Then I went to the loo, behind another heavy oak door, this time marked “Women Peers”. There were two hairdryers plugged in beside the sinks. I pictured rain-drenched baronesses gratefully smartening up their perms before taking their seats. Useful to have a hairdryer there, of course, but there was also something makeshift about it – practical but unstylish, like those pictures you see of the inside of Buckingham Palace, with a two-bar electric heater sitting stranded in an 18th-century marble fireplace.

At dinner that evening, the kids asked me how you got to be in the House of Lords and what the lords did and, as so often on these occasions, I found under questioning that my knowledge was sketchier than I might like to think and blustered through some plausible-sounding answers. What most impressed them was our sighting of Mr Apprentice and they were delighted by the descriptions of waiters constantly addressing Brian as “M’lord”, especially since at one point it seemed as though one of them had directed the phrase at Ben.

Later, on the news, we saw that there had been a protest that day outside the House of Commons; there were scenes of people gathered in the spring sunshine, all holding banners and placards, protesting about NHS cuts. “Oh, dear God,” I said to Ben, “there’s going to be a shot of us in a minute, dressed up to the nines, sweeping past these poor protesters as we swan through the peers’ entrance like a couple of absolute arseholes.”

Thankfully there wasn’t but it gave me pause for thought. Bob Crow had died earlier that day – we’d heard the news just before we set off for our lunch with Brian – and I had been genuinely sad. Often when seeing him interviewed I had said, “He really is of a dying breed and I’m sorry there aren’t still more like him.” What I meant was that he seemed from an era that was almost gone but that I am old enough to remember: of working-class warriors, lefties who looked and talked like proper lefties, who stood for something clear and identifiable and weren’t ashamed to do so.

But my younger self, who first formed those kinds of ideas – discovering socialism in my teens through the NME and Rock Against Racism, writing feminist songs at Hull University and playing Red Wedge gigs in the early Eighties with Ben – what would she have made of me sitting politely in a posh frock and heels in the House of Lords chamber, having thoroughly enjoyed lunch in the formal dining room and a wee in what was, quite literally, the Ladies? She’d have objected, probably: maybe refused on principle to creep through that door and sit on that chair. She would have missed quite an experience. 

 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition