This was a bad week for democracy and our freedoms in the UK. We lost the right to protest noisily, and effectively, to vote without ID, and to have an independent electoral commission. Parliament also allowed the government to break international law by deporting refugees to Rwanda, along with giving the Home Secretary the power to arbitrarily deport several million people born in this country (dual nationals) with no right of appeal prior to them losing their citizenship.
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson’s government has a master plan for maintaining itself in power. While the occasional piece of legislation has been questioned in the media for its draconian consequences, or its anti- democratic nature, few commentators have put the pieces together. The last few months of legislation have been a fundamental assault on freedom and our ability to get rid of this government’s corrupt regime.
When 43% of voters delivered an 80 seat majority for the Conservatives in our dangerously outdated electoral system, it was left to the Lords to provide some of the most effective opposition to our country’s drift towards authoritarian government. Last year, we got some proper regulation of water companies who are dumping sewage into our rivers. This year, in one glorious night we rejected almost 18 pages of government amendments to the Police Bill, by taking advantage of a government miscalculation. On both occasions the Lords were the focus of massive public campaigns with peers working hand in glove with NGOs to get things done.
The Lords persistent opposition has levered a few little concessions, such as some legal oversight when a Minister arbitrarily deports someone, to a much more restrained version of the government’s attack on Judicial Review. That is how the system is meant to work with the Lords doing active scrutiny on government legislation and Ministers improving the laws as a result. But it has barely happened in the current flurry of bills as this right wing government has no interest in consensual politics or expert advice.
Early this week, the Lords finally capitulated on the Policing Bill, the Elections Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill. The votes were scheduled for late in the evening and any hope of defeating the government disappeared as many opposition peers gave up and went home. On the crucial vote to respect international law on the Refugee Convention, the Labour front bench threw in the towel and abstained. Many Labour backbenchers didn’t obey, but not enough to defeat the government a fifth time on this essential principle.
This is not an attack on the many Labour Lords who do some amazing work. Labour are trying to make old conventions function when much of it needs updating by a few hundred years. Electronic and remote voting worked during the Covid lockdowns and would have stopped this legislation from becoming a battle of late night stamina. So would an early start to the day. I get in at 8am and don’t want to hang around for 12 hours before we even start voting. This is a hangover from the days when people did other jobs before getting to the chamber to claim their £300. It’s time the House of Lords was stopped being treated as an interesting hobby, rather than a proper job.
The key change I’d love to see, which would put me out of a job, is to have a second chamber of voting members elected by Proportional Representation (you can always retain ex judges, medics, etc as non-voting experts) as this would give the Lords enough authority to stand up to the Commons on issues of law, justice and democracy. It could also become the body that investigates acts of corruption, such as the fast track scheme for Covid related contracts, or failures of the Ministerial Code. It could also choose to block, or revise the increasing quantity of secondary legislation that currently by-passes Parliamentary scrutiny. An elected second chamber, with a much wider range of political voices, could become the democratic watchdog that simply doesn’t exist for us now.