Wake up, my Lords

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Sleeping watchdogs, the Lords have let through a host of bad legislation in the past 18 years - from the poll tax to the Dangerous Dogs Act. Suddenly, in the dog days of this weakened government, they seem to have woken up. The fine sight of Lord Bingham on the rampage over the Crime (Sentences) Bill this week ought to remind us how much we need a strong second chamber.

Labour looks as if it may fail to disturb our sleepy second chamber. It is committed to a little reform, but not enough. Meanwhile, despite the savaging that the Lords have given Michael Howard lately, the Tory party still praises every jot and tittle of our constitution, including the aristocracy. In a briefing document, Central Office writes: "The Hereditary Principle - An Asset. Hereditary peers bring colour, tradition, youth and a wealth of experience to parliament. They are a link to the customs and traditions that have formed this country." (328 hereditary peers are Tory, 35 Labour or Lib Dem.)

The Tory briefing attacks Labour's promise to strike out the hereditary peers within the first parliament. Labour's reforming zeal, however, goes no further. There is only a vague commitment to create an elected chamber at some point (unspecified) in the future. "Extremely unlikely until after a second general election," says Doug Henderson, their constitutional spokesperson.

So the Lords will become an ermine quango, the biggest and most powerful quango in the land, a fiefdom almost entirely in the gift of the prime minister. What prime minister, having once gained such power, would hasten to give it up at some future date? Where would be the pressure for further reform?

Abolishing the absurdity of the hereditary peerage seems so simple, but the more people think about it, the more opposition to Labour's half-hearted plan is growing. In a Fabian pamphlet this week, Lord Desai (Lab, LSE economics professor) and Lord Kilmarnock (crossbencher, hereditary, formerly SDP) express the fear that what Labour is about to do will be a calamity. By removing the excrescence of the hereditary peerage, they will remove the urgency to reform the Lords, guaranteeing that nothing more will be done for the foreseeable future. After all, the 1911 Parliament Act, reducing the Lords' power to obstruct legislation, also promised an elected chamber. Eighty-six years later, no party has enacted it.

In the summer, a Lords debate on the Constitution - including the abolition of the hereditary peerage - drew, not surprisingly, the biggest turn-out of their lordships in years. Backwoodsmen, rarely beaten from their covers, filled the place with moth-eaten metaphors and ermine-lined purple prose. Conservatives always talk as if they have reached the end of history, as if they themselves embody the last word in evolution. So the Constitution was an "oak tree", or a "valuable heirloom history has bequeathed us". Rebellion is in the air, with promises of a campaign of obstruction against many of Labour's planned constitutional reforms. Some hotheads threaten to tear up the Salisbury Convention, by which the Lords agree not to vote down any government manifesto commitment.

Not many people regard our constitution as an oak tree: it is more like a very old and mangy sweater with loose threads hanging off it. Labour wants to pluck out one of these threads, but the more they pull, the more they may find the whole ragged thing unravels before their eyes.

Yet again the forces of reaction are combining curiously with the forces of progress. Last time, in 1966, it was not the Lords who blocked reform, but an unsavoury alliance of extremists in the Commons led by Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. Those who want an absolute elective dictatorship in the Commons, where governments can do whatever they like in the name of "sovereignty", are mainly suspect political characters. They tend to have unpleasant things up their sleeves that they want to foist on the people, things that would not stand up to the sustained scrutiny of a less political second chamber. Those who want "neat' constitutions like the reins of power to be held in one fist.

The House of Lords has more power than it uses. It wisely ties its own hands in deference to the democratically legitimate Commons, self-conscious of their hereditary absurdity. Once that is removed, they may flex their muscles a little more. So the consequences of even this minimalist reform are by no means clear. There will still be a large Tory majority, and if it misbehaves, Labour may be forced to create new ranks of Labour peers. And so would each incoming government thereafter. Election would be a far better way.

The "unicameralists" - MPs who fear any loss of Commons power - argue that giving electoral legitimacy to the Lords would produce a system where two mighty chambers might be led by opposing parties. But two-chamber systems work perfectly well in a number of countries as different as the US and Germany. In any case, nobody is suggesting that an elected Lords would have much more than its current power to check and delay bad law. Why are Labour so reluctant to move in one leap to an elected second chamber? Are they still elective dictators at heart?

Labour can see that there is no way of creating an elected Lords without reviewing the voting system for the Commons. If we had proportional representation, coalition governments would behave in a more consensual way, and there would be less need for a second chamber to have more power.

The Lords' main role is to scrutinise legislation. Anthony Barnett, constitutional campaigner, argues for a body of citizens selected like a jury. They could sit beside a smaller body of experts, not selected by political parties but nominated by their own professional bodies: there might be seats for the medical royal colleges, artistic directors, scientists, writers, scholars and clerics, as well as the law lords. All sides want to keep some of the great and the good.

However, constitutional issues are not easily whipped through parliament. Sometimes the donkey just will not budge. It looks as if an unholy coalition is again building up to block Labour's planned reform. Three groups will unite to stop to it: those who want full reform, those who want to keep the hereditary peerage and those who want all power to stay with the Commons. All of these regard a second chamber ruled absolutely by prime ministerial patronage as unacceptable. Rightly they will not trust a partial reform that could stay with us for another 86 years.

In which case, in its first flush of victory, Labour should rush for a bold reform of both Houses at once: give us proportional representation to guarantee that we never again suffer the tyranny of 18 years of extreme one-party rule elected by a minority of the people. And give us a strong, elected second chamber to check the untrammelled power of any government.