The shocking truth about Labour's plans for their Lordships

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS become the fashion among cartoonists recently to depict the PM as possessing mad, staring eyes. Since Mrs Thatcher stormed No 10 in 1979 there have only been two models of party leaders for cartoonists: buffoons and power-crazed lunatics. Mr Blair is clearly not the former, so - with his zeal - he must be the latter. The most perceptive note his radicalism, place him in armour, give him a wart and invite us to remember Oliver Cromwell.

There are worse analogies. In his recent book on reforming the House of Lords, the former Labour leader of that House, Ivor Richard, reminds readers of previous Labour proposals for new second chambers. In the early Thirties, he recalls, some Labour people agitated for a wholly appointed "House of Industry" in which brilliant technocrats and scientists would predominate, thereby lifting government out of the hands of incompetent politicians. Sir Oswald Mosley - a mad starer if ever there was one - was keen on this idea.

It is discomfiting now to discover that later today or tomorrow, New Labour will make a submission to the Royal Commission essentially recommending an appointed "Chamber of Elders" to be composed of a quarter dress designers, a quarter ethnic and sexual minorities, a quarter genetic biologists, and a quarter captains of industry. Or rather, to be fair, Labour argues for a second chamber whose powers will not challenge those of the House of Commons (which is to remain "pre-eminent"). Political parties, regional assemblies, devolved bodies and others will nominate its members, but these nominees will then be vetted by an independent appointments commission. This appointments commission will be charged with maintaining a proper level of ethnic, gender and regional mix, and with favouring expertise.

That the governing party should advocate the setting-up of such an obviously impotent chamber explains the puzzle of the appointment of Lord Wakeham to head the Royal Commission. His lordship, also chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, is a man not so much in favour of letting sleeping dogs lie, as committed to sedating perfectly alert ones.

For Labour to argue for a non-elected chamber whose powers are - if anything - very slightly diminished compared with those of the present House of Lords, is a profound shock to me. But I am a bit of a constitutional anorak. If there is such a thing as the electorate's G-spot, then the reform of the second chamber is located somewhere near its big toe. Many Labour big cheeses think that those of us who are preoccupied with these issues rhyme with "bankers". It's little use reminding them that these things are worth getting right, 'cos we're likely to be saddled with them for the next 50 years.

So where has Labour's submission come from? Well, there were consultations. One hundred meetings of constituency reps, trades unions and Labour Friends of Israel were held up and down the country, and this was a distillation of their views. They didn't want any of that nasty gridlock that so hobbles American presidents, but they did want loads of women and so on in the second (powerless) chamber.

I shouldn't be so surprised. The New Labour Mr Jekyll has just delivered us so much real devolution (as today's votes remind us), and real decentralisation, that I'd nearly forgotten all about Mr Hyde.

That ugly brute clings hard to first past the post, ridicules the Jenkins Report, dislikes the Liberal Democrats on tribal grounds and believes only in Labour. If his party is in power, all is automatically well. If not, all is ill. He thinks that pluralism is the French for "orgy".

So let us just ask ourselves what, once the hereditary peers have all been executed, is the constitutional problem that needs solving? Well, I can tell you what it is not. It is not that a prime minister of this country, supported by a majority in the House of Commons and rarely more than 44 per cent of those voting at general elections, possesses too little power. There is practically no one in the democratic world who exercises as much sway over the administration of a nation as does Mr Tony Blair.

Now, most experts agree that the purpose of a second chamber should be to revise legislation, scrutinise the executive, debate the issues of the day and - if so moved - to delay the wishes of the first chamber and - therefore - of the government. The "check" as in "checks and balances" actually means delay.

The problem with the old Lords was that they were a chamber appointed by accident of birth and perpetually Tory. They therefore lacked legitimacy. What Labour has now done is to confuse the argument against these Lords disrupting what the government (supported by a majority of the Commons) may want to do, with an argument against anyone - whoever they are - disrupting what the government wants to do.

But the logic here is to leave no effective checks and balances on the executive. In our system, the Commons is there to support the government. That's why, after all, the Queen appoints as PM the person who can command a majority in the Lower House. This is not a new observation. The late John Wells, in his book The House of Lords, quotes the Cromwellian political philosopher James Harrington as writing that "a council without a balance is not a commonwealth but an oligarchy". Albeit an elected oligarchy.

Cromwell recognised this argument. The Lords was last abolished 350 years ago, against Cromwell's advice. "I tell you," he warned those agitating for unicameralism, "that unless you have some such thing as a balance, you are not safe."

Within weeks, the unfettered Commons had voted to make adultery a capital offence. Seven years later, Cromwell reintroduced the Lords, allowing membership to those over 30, who were married, earned pounds 100 a year and had served in the army. God, I hope Jack Straw isn't reading this.

So I venture the thought that, were a certain M Portillo the Prime Minister - enjoying a well-whipped majority of around 30 - and he was busy settling the hash of local councils, reintroducing grammar schools and pillaging the welfare state, Labour would now be demanding a really hairy, virile second chamber, with loads and loads of blocking powers.

We have an elective dictatorship and there are two possible answers to it. One is to reform the Commons fundamentally: strengthening it enormously and separating its powers and function from those of the government. We would then have an executive presidency, with ministers drawn from outside the House, held to account by a vigorous Commons. Then we would need no second chamber.

Or we will need a powerful second chamber, which - to enjoy legitimacy - will have to be largely elected. If Oliver Cromwell can get the point, surely Tony can.