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5 November 2015

The Lords turns on the Tories, Her Majesty’s delicacy and spinning the spin doctor

My view that Corbyn lacks the judgement to be an effective Labour leader is strengthened by his appointment of the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as his spin doctor.

By Peter Wilby

The House of Lords has been an unelected chamber throughout its long history. Yet the Tories, it seems, have only just noticed, suddenly deciding to play the democracy card when peers delayed George Osborne’s tax-credit cuts.

In the late 1970s, the Lords inflicted 240 defeats on a Labour government in four years. After 18 years of Tory rule, they were only one above that total. In those days, the Lords had an inbuilt Tory majority, thanks to the votes of hereditary peers. Despite partial reform, peers still managed to defeat the New Labour government on 252 occasions within six years. Though most of their defeats did not significantly inconvenience Labour governments, some did. In 1968, the Lords voted down the renewal of UN sanctions against the white-minority regime in Rhodesia. In 2000, it voted against reducing the male homosexual age of consent to 16. In 2004, it voted against the Hunting Act. More important, Labour ministers worried about confrontation with the upper house and, therefore, didn’t contemplate policies that might upset the aristocracy, such as a land tax or modification of the grossly inequitable distribution of UK land.

Now, the boot is on the other foot. As I pointed out here in June, the current House of Lords, in which no single party commands a majority, is probably more representative of the public’s preferences than the Commons, where the party with a majority of MPs was supported by only 24 per cent of eligible voters.

The Tories’ complaint that the peers are behaving undemocratically is pure humbug. First, Tory leaders refused during the election campaign to spell out how they would reduce the welfare bill but denied that they would hit working families. Second, the cuts are contained not in a parliamentary bill but in a statutory instrument, which, because it cannot be amended, in effect kills off debate in the Commons. The Tories have been doubly undemocratic, deliberately deceiving the electorate and deliberately using a device to muzzle elected MPs.

Elect a lord

None of the above alters arguments for introducing an elected second chamber. Since we are stuck with first-past-the-post for the Commons, the party political peers should be appointed in exact proportion to the percentage of votes cast for each party in the latest general election. The names would be put forward by party leaders, but so they are now. The unaffiliated crossbench peers should remain but even they, after nomination by some committee of the great and the good, should be subject to voters’ approval.

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That is why I think Labour should have supported the Lib Dems’ proposal to kill the tax-credit cuts completely. It would have exposed the unworkability of the present arrangements for a second chamber and created an urgent need for reform. If the Tories had deployed their “nuclear option” of abolishing the upper house, the hassle would have distracted them from advancing other legislative horrors. As Matthew d’Ancona put it in the Guardian, a constitutional upheaval would eat up parliamentary time “gluttonously”. With this government in office, that’s just what we need.


How to ruffle a monarch

Still, thanks to the “kill” motion being defeated, David Cameron will not flood the Lords with Tory supporters. This, the Times gravely warned, would make the Queen “uncomfortable”, because she would have to approve partisan appointments. This was not the only recent threat to the monarch’s well-being. If Jeremy Corbyn failed to kneel when being inducted to the Privy Council, he would “embarrass” her, as he would if he raised human rights abuses with the Chinese president. Clearly, this is a woman of delicate sensibilities. Yet the prospect of thousands of her subjects being plunged into poverty seems not to ruffle her at all.


The story of Seumas Milne

My view that Corbyn lacks the judgement to be an effective Labour leader is strengthened by his appointment of the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as his spin doctor. The first rule for this position is that the doctor shouldn’t be the story. But Milne immediately became the story. He passionately supports trade unionism and the Palestinian cause, while opposing western military adventures. Moreover, he was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford. He was therefore a sitting duck for accusations of being a Stalinist, a Trotskyist, an over-privileged intellectual, an apologist for terrorism, an anti-Semite, a Vladimir Putin supporter and much else. Several papers ran whole columns about his failings as social media frothed with indignation.

Nearly everything written about him is untrue, particularly the claim that he is narrow-minded; the Guardian’s comment pages, when he edited them for six years, were as open to non-left opinions as they have ever been. But a columnist like him, writing in somewhat Spartist style, leaves too many provocative sentences lying around. Besides, his journalistic background, almost entirely on the Guardian, is hardly suitable. What Corbyn needs is somebody more familiar with modern broadcasting, social media and, ahem, larger-circulation papers.


Amis and the proletariat

Sceptical as I am about Corbyn’s leadership, I am even more sceptical about Martin Amis’s status as “a leading figure on the British left”. That was how the Sunday Times introduced the novelist’s full-page attack on Corbyn as “undereducated, humourless, third-rate”. I have heard many comments about Corbyn but never heard anyone say: “I wonder what Martin Amis thinks of him?” Nor did Amis’s piece contain anything original, except a curious passage about the 1970s in which he states that “it was generally felt at the Statesman [where he and I then worked] that the proletariat deserved to win”.

I cannot say it struck me that way; rather, most staff seemed worried that undereducated union leaders might instruct the proles to stop emptying the dustbins. l

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?