What is power? And who has it? Pretty obvious, you might think. The Prime Minister, the Government, the House of Commons. Only up to a point, Lord Copper.
Opinions, of course, vary on the thorny issue of restricting Tax Credits. As my voting record shows, I am rather in favour of removing an effective cross-subsidy for poor paying employers, replacing it with a raft of measures to help those who truly cannot help themselves. The trouble with it is that you only ever hear from the “losers” who shout far louder than those who may gain from it, such as taxpayers in general. Opinions may change if any reversal in the tax credit policy means closure of schools or hospitals, increasing tax, or perhaps simply the economic recovery stalling or reversing.
Yet whatever you may think about Tax Credits, the reversal last week highlights a far more worrying constitutional point. The Conservatives were elected to power. Their Manifesto made it plain that they would save £12 Billion from the benefits bill, and they pledged to balance the budget and cut the deficit. They duly brought in measures to do so, which were voted for five times in the elected House of Commons, only to have them overturned by unelected Labour (and even more laughably and outrageously Liberal Democrat) peers. That was in breach of the century-old convention that the Lords do not vote on, nor block nor delay, tax and financial matters which are wholly the prerogative of the Commons.
If they have done it on tax credits they can do it on any other Manifesto pledge. The unelected House thwarting the will of the people in that way can only lead to major Constitutional crisis, probably resulting in the fundamental reform of the House of Lords. It is far too big anyhow, and stuffed with peers who rarely (if ever) turn up. The bulk of the work is carried out by 150 or so out of the 850. It may well be time for the others to go.
But nor should power necessarily be in the hands of those who shout the loudest. I have had a swathe of letters alleging that petitions should rule the roost, or perhaps referendums. That would be quite wrong. The most basic principle of British Parliamentary Democracy is that MPs are not ‘delegates’. They are ‘representatives.’ The Party with the largest number of MPs forms a Government with a mandate to deliver their manifesto promises. The notion that they should be blown off course by, for example, 100,000 people signing a petition, is quite wrong.
Petitions, lobbying locally or nationally, newspaper comment, think-tanks, party conferences – they all have an essential part to play in framing public opinion, and no doubt influencing decisions. But the notion that those things – or the unelected House of Lords – should have any decisive say over the outcome, implies some kind of dictatorship by the minority. Parliament and Government are there to rule for all of us; not just those who make the most fuss.
Power is truly the people’s – and they exercise it with their vote in the General Election; not by the losers seeking to thwart the will of the majority with any kind of Parliamentary shenanigan.