Labour's reform of Lords `not enough'

Lib Dems in Glasgow
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The Independent Online

A little reform of the House of Lords would not do, Robert Maclennan, President of the Liberal Democrats, told the conference yesterday, contrasting the party's radical constitutional agenda with Labour's faltering approach.

"Tinkering with our constitution merely creates anomalies which the public will reject," Mr Maclennan said. Only the election of more Liberal Democrat MPs could hold Labour to a programme for change.

Labour's plans for the House of Lords are limited to the early abolition of the voting rights of hereditary peers with party balance achieved by the appointment of life peers - a "super quango" in the eyes of Mr Maclennan.

Wholesale reform of the second chamber has been deferred to the next century by Labour. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile want peers replaced by senators, elected from the regions by proportional representation.

Mr Maclennan recalled that twice in his lifetime Labour had attempted constitutional reform and failed - in the 1960s on reform of the Lords and in the 1970s on Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

"The attempt and not the deed confounded them. And the attempt failed, because it was too little, not too much."

Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, were also prepared to accept cuts in the number of MPs from Scotland consequent on the creation of an Edinburgh parliament. "To make no change in Scottish representation in Westminster is to butter your Bannock on both sides," Mr Maclennan said.

An assembly for Wales with the old voting system - as now intended by the Labour Party - would merely entrench minority rule, he said. Nor would "regional talking shops" for councillors dressed up as regional government.

Mr Maclennan was gently dismissive of Tony Blair's overture to the Lib Dems, describing it as "a kind message from a friend". He took the Labour leader's talk of increased co-operation as "merited tribute" to what the Liberal Democrats had achieved over the past year.

"Some of us quite like Tony Blair. The readiness to exchange such courtesies is a new and civilised development in British politics." Recalling the words of the Whig historian Lord Macauley, "It will soon again be necessary to reform, that we may preserve", Mr Maclennan said the great reform that the Lib Dems proposed was nothing less than a fundamental constitutional resettlement.

It would include strengthening European Union democracy and shifting executive power from Westminster to elected bodies in the national, regional and local authorities. Both Houses of Parliament would be modernised, with the final say entrusted to the public in a referendum.