No tears for the days of ermine and red roses

Graham Ball talks to the peers who can't wait to lose their privileges
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR'S pledge last week to take away the voting rights of the 770 hereditary peers who are entitled to sit in the House of Lords will mean the end of centuries of privilege and tradition for ermine-clad aristocrats, 14 of whom are Labour supporters.

Remarkably little is known about the tiny group of red rose wearers hidden among the blue-blood politicians. Where do they come from? How do they feel about their leader's winding-up order?

Officially, party sources confirm that all Labour peers, hereditary and life, support Mr Blair's proposals to move toward greater democratic accountability, the first stage of which will involve the removal of the hereditary members and their replacement with a part-elected, part-nominated second chamber. But do they?

Yesterday Labour's most senior peer, the prison-visiting Earl of Longford, questioned the planned changes. "I admire Mr Blair very much, but I would prefer that another reform should be tried first," he said. "I have been attending the House of Lords for 50 years and suspect I know quite a good deal about the place. I have been instrumental in attempts at reform in the past and believe those ideas, which were first put forward in 1966, still contain some merit."

While Labour leader of the Lords, Lord Longford initiated a bill which would have restricted the hereditary peers to a debating role only and stripped them of their powers to vote. "It was finally thrown out of the Commons by an alliance of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, who perceived the reformed House of Lords as a threat," said Lord Longford, who is the only member of the house to have been made a peer and retain a hereditary peerage.

Lord Longford, who is 90 and still active in the Lords, believes the strength of his proposal lies in its possible avoidance of conflict. "It would still be a good idea, a compromise that would allow existing members to carry on and might not embroil the Labour party in distracting disputes."

But while Labour's oldest peer has doubts about his party's planned reform, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, who at 37 is the youngest hereditary peer, is right behind the Blair plan.

"I am in complete agreement with the proposal. It is a good initial step," said Lord Ponsonby, whose maiden speech to the house concerned his plans for its abolition.

"I am extremely aware of the paradox involved in being a Labour politician and a hereditary member of the Lords. I very nearly didn't take up my seat. However, I was persuaded by the argument that on balance it was better for me to take advantage of the political platform it provides," said the man who, as plain Fred Ponsonby, served for five years as a Labour councillor for the London Borough of Wandsworth.

"The only time I ever use my title is in the Lords. I know it's an indefensible anachronism, but I'm a politician who is seeking to change things," said Lord Ponsonby, who divides his time in the Lords with the demands of his work as an industrial engineer. "I know opponents to reform say that the hereditary peers are good, bad and indifferent, but their problem is that they are drawn from a narrow social group. They are people who don't have to work for a living and are overwhelmingly male. They are not a balanced cross-section of society."

In his speech last Wednesday, Mr Blair claimed that while 300 hereditary peers sided with the Tories and 24 supported the Liberal Democrats, only 12 voted Labour. According to the Lords opposition whips , the correct number is 14.

"Every vote is precious and I can assure you that the correct number of hereditary peers who take the Labour whip is 14," said an official from the whips office.

The newest recruit to this exclusive club within a club is Viscount Chandos, who left the cross-benches to take the Labour whip 15 months ago. "I wholly agree with Tony Blair's proposition," said Viscount Chandos, a merchant banker who is a front-bench spokesman on economic affairs, and whose grandfather was a Tory Cabinet minister. "I acknowledge that I'm in a minority of hereditary peers who have signed up with Labour, but I see it as my duty - a bit like doing jury service."

Labour's blue blood peers

Lord Listowel, 89

Fifth Earl. Barony created in 1869.

Background: Family name, Hare. Former Cabinet minister, Postmaster General and Secretary of State for India and Colonial Affairs. Labour's longest- serving peer.

Motto: "I hate whoever is profane."

Lord Longford, 90

Seventh Earl. Barony established in 1945.

Background: Former Cabinet minister, Lord Privy Seal and redoubtable prison reformer.

Motto: "Glory is the shadow of virtue."

Lord Strabolgi, 81

Background: Family name, Kenworthy, title established in 1381. Educated Chelsea School of Art. Deputy speaker concerned with arts.

Motto: "Without noise".

Lord Gifford, 55

Fifth baron.

Background: QC practising in London and Jamaica.

Motto: "Not without God's assistance".

Lord Grenfell, 60

Background: Retired from World Bank, lives in Paris.

Motto: "Honest duty".

Lord Kennet, 72

Second baron.

Background: Former MEP and SDP Chief whip in the Lords.

Motto: "A house on a hill".

Lord Kilbracken, 75

Background: Educated Eton and Oxford. Journalist and author.

Lord Melchett, 47

Background: Executive director of Greenpeace. Former Minister of State for Northern Ireland.

Lord Milner of Leeds, 72

Background: Educated Oundle and Cambridge. Solicitor.

Lord Monkswell, 49

Background: Educated George Heriot's School, Edinburgh. Engineer and former van driver. Rolls his own cigarettes. Sentenced to 14 weeks' prison following an attack on a Manchester psychotherapist.

Motto: "Persevere".

Lord Ponsonby of

Shulbrede, 37

Background: Educated Holland Park Comprehensive and Cardiff University. Engineer for American firm. Former Wandsworth Borough councillor. Prefers to be known as Fred Ponsonby.

Lord Rea, 67

Background: Retired GP and spokesman on medical affairs. Educated Dartington Hall and Cambridge.

Lord Shepherd, 77

Background: Former Minister of State Commonwealth Office and Deputy Leader of the Lords.