If the peers are so representative, why did so many go to Eton?

As one of the few former presidents of the NUS not a Labour MP, the least I expected was a baronetcy
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The Independent Culture
IT'S BEEN 18 months since this government came to power, and I have not yet been ennobled. As one of the few former presidents of the National Union of Students who is not a Labour MP, the least I could have expected was a baronetcy of somewhere in north London. My predecessor Trevor Phillips would doubtless agree with me, although I think his elevation is surely only a matter of months away. We are well qualified to sit in the other place and contribute to the better governance of the nation. Unfortunately our fairly recent immigrant status, among other things, has left us lacking in the nobility required for us to inherit our seats.

I therefore have reason to be deeply suspicious of Mr Blair and his intentions towards the House of Lords. As indeed, apparently, many Labour peers are. But then, it is a terrible truth that one's own appointment demonstrates the visionary nature of the appointer, while that of others never fails to suggest mild corruption and cronyism. Michael Ancram, the wonderful chairman of the Conservative Party (up there with Mo and Clare as one of my favourite three or four British politicians) winces with pain at the thought of a Blair-appointed house, while dining and socialising quite happily with the products of Tory patronage. The recently published memoirs of that dreadful old fraud Woodrow Wyatt (Lord Wyatt of Weeford, no less) suggest a pattern of influence and bullying that ran, unreformed, through the changing Britain of the Thatcher era.

So I suppose we should not be surprised by the hostility that Tories, and some Labour members of the House of Lords, are exhibiting towards the redoubtable Lady Jay's plans to abolish hereditary peerages, while appointing a Royal Commission to work out what to do next. The old Labour lords, most of them the product of two periods of frantic Labour peer- making (1964-70 and 1974-79), are concerned about being swamped by an interim avalanche of modern, trendy, Blairy lords, while the Conservatives see their natural advantage being eroded at a time when they have very little talent to ennoble themselves.

Some of this opposition takes quite a comical form. Lord Randall, until 1997 the Labour MP for Hull West, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph yesterday as worrying about the brutal manner of the cull. Speaking of hereditary peers he said that "to wipe them out overnight is not only unacceptable in humanitarian terms, but would degrade Parliament". This is language more applicable to the Balkans than to the consequences of Lady Jay's modest measure, and invokes the image of a UN convoy, led by Larry Elliott, arriving beside the Woolsack to distribute warm clothing, while muttering Mandelsonite militiamen lounge on the government benches, fingering their weapons in a menacing way.

And in this paper the other day, unnamed Labour lords spoke of their discontent with the new peers, describing them as "luvvies". Presumably this describes all these sleazy lords who were never even ministers or long-serving MPs, and who do not see the Lords as a form of semi-retirement with perks, where you can bask in your ancient glory surrounded by those who once shared it with you.

But what it all adds up to is this: they rather like the House of Lords as it is (with them in it), and don't want to allow one part of the reform - abolition of hereditary peerages - to go through, when they may later be able to use it as a bargaining chip against a diminution of their role under any future proposals. That is why they are joining the Conservatives (and some rather naive Liberal Democrats) in threatening to oppose any partial change, unless they see what the whole change will be.

In the face of this opposition, Baroness Jay, with her use of the old "it's in the manifesto" nonsense, looks momentarily as if she is on the wrong side. Voters do not vote for individual items in manifestos, and a poll of electors would probably produce a majority who were blissfully unaware of Labour's commitment to reform of the Lords. This is an arbitrary arrangement that is designed to confer some legitimacy on the Commons' superiority to the Lords. Unfortunately, owing to its unelected nature and the large hereditary component, the Lords has very little democratic right to stand against the Commons. That is precisely the problem.

And this brings us back to focus sharply on the main issue. It is bizarre and creates an imbalance in our constitution to have 600 men (there are only 20 or so hereditary peeresses), entitled by birth to deal with legislation. It is rubbish to say that these noble persons constitute a "wide variety of backgrounds", just because one went loony and another now grows alfalfa in Peru. Not only are they all men, but roughly half of them were educated at just one school - Eton. If half of them were ex-pupils of Holloway Comprehensive I think we would hear rather less about "varied backgrounds".

Nor are their debates things of wonder compared to the Commons. You only have to think back to the debate about the gay age of consent, where blind prejudice masqueraded risibly as "experience of life".

Andrew Adonis's excellent book on Westminster recalled the occasion, only six years ago, when Lord Diamond's bill to allow women to inherit peerages was massively defeated by the Lords, on the basis that (as Lord Denham put it) daughters more often cared for their doddering fathers, and would therefore be in an unfair position to influence their incontinent relatives' decision on who should wear the ermine. The bill was massively defeated.

Clearly no sensible, reformed second chamber would have a hereditary element in it. If we can agree on nothing else, we can agree on that. As a bicameralist (someone who can swing with two chambers, and is not ashamed), I want to see the Royal Commission come up with a powerful, scrutinising, elected second chamber. But I can also see a role for ex officio nominations from the CBI, the TUC, the BMA and many another worthy, non-political body.

To determine who should be there is a long and consultative process - of course it is. To determine that hereditary peers shouldn't, is the work of a moment. And yet there they still are, protected from abolition by a failure to agree on the alternative. Back in 1968, a Labour government with a large majority saw its efforts at reform stymied by - among other things - a strange alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, the pair of them representing that great curse of the modern era, the "outstanding parliamentarian", effectively the political equivalent of the MCC member.

Well, I don't want that to happen again. I do not want to see a coalition of disaffection form around diffuse objections to a new proposal for the second chamber and effectively act to preserve the rights of barons to tell me what to do. I am, and I think you too should be, quite happy to get rid of the aristos first, live with the life peers in the meantime, and then see what a Royal Commission comes up with. In this way we will have made some progress towards modernising our democracy, whatever happens.

Now, the next question is, who will serve on the Royal Commission?