Falconer sings along to Billy Bragg's tune
Thursday 12 February 2004
Billy Bragg, the left-wing singer, has formed an unlikely alliance with Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, to press for further reform of the House of Lords.
Mr Bragg, who quit the Labour Party over the 1991 Gulf War, held what Lord Falconer's department called a "positive and friendly" hour-long meeting with the Lord Chancellor on Monday to discuss his blueprint to tackle voter apathy by modernising the Upper House.
The singer wants the Lords to become a 300-strong chamber indirectly elected in proportion to the votes cast for each party at each general election. The Lord Chancellor is warming to the plan and will ask other political parties to discuss it in the hope of achieving a consensus on the next stage of Lords reform. Lord Falconer invited Mr Bragg to Monday's meeting at his Department of Constitutional Affairs and it was first name terms from the start. "There was no Lord this or Lord that," Mr Bragg said yesterday. "Charlie was very interested in the idea and I think it now has some momentum."
Mr Bragg, who upset Labour by voting Liberal Democrat at the 2001 election as part of his drive to urge tactical voting, decided to campaign for Lords reform when he attended the huge anti-war rally in London a year ago. He feared that a whole generation, including many on the march, would not vote and that participation in British elections would fall to US levels of about 50 per cent.
He is convinced that his "secondary mandate" plan to elect the Lords indirectly would encourage people to vote without creating a rival power base to the Commons. His campaign comes at a good time for Tony Blair, who wants to use Lords reform to rebuild bridges with his party. Talking up further change could also help the Government secure parliamentary approval for its proposal to deny the 92 remaining hereditary peers the right to sit and vote in the Lords. This faces opposition from Tory and Liberal Democrat peers, who can outvote Labour if they join forces.
Blair aides insist the Prime Minister is serious about getting Lords reform on track after the Commons voted down all the options for a directly elected Upper House last year. After criticism that he wants an all-appointed House, he included the issue in his "Big Conversation" public consultation exercise, and a plan for an indirectly elected Lords could be in Labour's general election manifesto.
Perhaps the meeting of minds between Lord Falconer and Mr Bragg was not such a surprise. Lord Falconer is the Cabinet's master of rock trivia and the minister most likely to ask colleagues who was the lead guitarist in band A or what was the B-side of record X. And he was once the flatmate of the former lead singer in a rock band called Ugly Rumours, one Tony Blair.
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