Mr Hague, you could make Lords reform more radical

After the peerage
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Lloyd George cruelly called it "a body of 500 men chosen at random from among the ranks of the unemployed". But it has taken until now for his goal - of removing the hereditary peers from Parliament - to be in sight at last. A 1998-99 bill will remove the right of hereditary peers to vote. That much is relatively simple. Even among among life peers the Tories enjoy a majority over Labour (147 to 98), so some new Labour peers will be created to even the parties up. An unspecified number of hereditary peers, chosen by their own party leaders, will also be turned into life peers: but now for the hard part. The Government will also announce its intention to proceed, eventually, to a more democratic second chamber. But of what kind?

No doubt it will change as the committee on Lords reform chaired by Lord Irvine - which held its first meeting last week - does its work. But a route map is now beginning to take shape. One influential view is that the second chamber should be two-thirds elected (probably by proportional representation on a regional list system) with the other third made up of distinguished crossbenchers, chosen by an independent appointments body. Members of the new second chamber might be elected for a fixed four- year term - like those for the Scottish parliament. (This is an admirable idea - if only because it means that with different electoral cycles the second chamber might be controlled by a different majority from the first, thus sharpening its role as a check on the executive.) Learning from the lessons of the 1960s, the Government would not try to alter the powers at the same time as the composition of the second chamber: instead, recognising that the more democratic legitimacy it has, the more it will clamour for extra powers, it would allow its remit to expand - within severe limits - incrementally, rather on the model of the European Parliament. But the detailed question of the form of an elected chamber would be left to a Royal Commission - an especially exalted and imposing one, to ensure that rejection of its findings would be highly embarrassing for whichever government was in power by the time it reported.

So far so good. This is actually rather a brave scenario. But there are grave dangers at every step. Even removal of the hereditary element, the most deeply desired change in the Labour Party, will not be achieved without a ritual struggle by the forces of aristocratic reaction. There are already whispers that the peers' Tory majority could seek to cause trouble on other legislation in protest at the reform. (At present every defeat of the Government - like the one this week on the referendum on a London mayor - simply underlines the case for reform, which is why the Tory whips in the Lords have been energetically trying to keep them to a minimum.) But such guerrilla action cannot be sustained indefinitely. The much greater danger is that of inertia on the part of the governing party. That once having achieved a carefully balanced super-quango, a second-term Labour government finds it rather likes it. Its own MPs in the Commons, having gorged themselves on the bleeding corpse of a disenfranchised aristocracy, then stop and think how appealing it would be to end their own careers as political appointees in a patronage-only Upper House. And what a threat to the Commons' own legitimacy it might be for there to be a democratically elected second chamber above it. Meanwhile the Government itself suddenly dreams up all sorts of reasons why it should not create a bothersome revising chamber, subject to the whims of the electorate and emboldened by its own legitimacy to challenge the executive hard and often.

There are grounds, however, for cautious optimism that the dynamic for change will be such that this won't happen. The Tory line, that they are not against reform but will oppose the bill removing the hereditary peerage's voting rights because it will produce an undemocratic abortion should be treated with suspicion. Their fears about the first stage are entirely legitimate. But if the current Tory regime was as progressive as some of their predecessors - such as Lord Carrington who actually made strenuous efforts to help Dick Crossman reform the Lords in the Sixties, or Alec Douglas Home who strongly advocated a mainly elected second chamber - they would now be outflanking Labour by publicly pushing proposals of their own for a democratised upper house. Indeed there is still time for them to do so. If they promised support for the broad strategy outlined above, they might even be able to negotiate a deal under which the reform could be achieved in a single stage.

Their present strategy, however, is to call for a grand committee of both houses, which (since it is sure to contain those in both the main parties who have a vested interest in delaying a democratised second chamber) is a sure recipe for sclerosis. The dangers of Royal Commissions is that they are mechanisms for delay; though a forthcoming Constitution Unit report argues strongly that there should be at least some delay between the stages, so that the powers as well as composition of a second chamber can be properly considered in the light of other changes - not least, if it happens, to the system of electing the Commons. But the great virtue of a Royal Commission is that it would take the issue outside the incestuous confines of Westminster.

The very fact that the Tories are now signed up - for whatever motives - to the correct proposition that an unelected second chamber is unsustainable in a modern democracy makes it more difficult for future governments of either party not to commit themselves to the further stage once the hereditary peers have lost their voting rights. Removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers is the best part of a century overdue, unfinished business from the Asquith premiership. But in anything but the short term, an appointed second chamber will be no more sustainable - morally, or let's hope, politically.

Comments