Blair plans to unseat hereditary peers

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair last night set out Labour's plans to take away the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

In a wide-ranging lecture on political reform the Labour leader said he would hold a referendum on changing the voting system for the Commons, and planned devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London, annual local elections, directly elected mayors for big cities, and a "code of citizens' rights".

Speaking at the John Smith Memorial Lecture in Westminster, Mr Blair ruled out an all-encompassing "Great Reform Bill", but declared: "New Labour wants to give power to the people, to be a government working in partnership with the people ... This is the future we want to build in the name of John Smith."

Mr Blair's plans for the Lords prompted Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, to defend the hereditary principle. He said Labour would deprive Parliament of "wisdom and knowledge which would otherwise be missing".

In a pre-emptive speech in London, Mr Mawhinney also claimed that the move "could conceivably" pose a threat to the monarchy. "It is quite simply the politics of class-driven envy."

A spokesman for Mr Blair said Mr Mawhinney's speech helped to underline Mr Blair's message that Labour was the party of the people, against the party of privilege.

Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the constitution, welcomed Mr Blair's strong acknowledgement of the case for reform of the voting system for elections to the Commons - although the Labour leader again said "I have never been persuaded" that proportional representation was a good idea.

Mr Maclennan said: "I take encouragement from the evidence of some movement in Mr Blair's thinking on electoral reform. Fair votes are not essentially about party interests, they are about voters' rights. I am glad that he has recognised the unfairness of the existing system."

Mr Maclennan is engaged in official talks with Robin Cook, Labour's policy supremo and a supporter of electoral reform, on the nature and timing of the referendum on changing the electoral system.

Mr Blair in his lecture repeated his willingness to "work with all those of goodwill who believe in the need for political change". He added: "Let the new way of governing be accompanied by a new politics."

The Tories, meanwhile, attempted to move the argument off the House of Lords and train their fire on Labour's plans for devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, which Tory strategists believe is much weaker ground for Mr Blair.

"Labour's devolution plans would set a tax-raising Scottish parliament on a collision course with Westminster," said Mr Mawhinney. The Tories have seized on comments by John McAllion, a Labour spokesman on Scottish affairs, who said a Labour-controlled Scottish parliament would have to raise income tax to pay for improved public services, in an interview to the Scotsman earlier this week.

Andrew Marr, page 19