Marx, Marquises and Marquand

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David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.

First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.

He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”

A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.

Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.

Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.

There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?

Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.

But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.

Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?

The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.

As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.

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