Tony Blair has already promised referendums on electoral reform, for parliaments in Scotland and Wales and for a greater London authority. There is also the prospect of a referendum on whether Britain should join a European single currency.
The strong possibility of the public being able to decide the future shape of the second chamber, if Mr Blair wins the general election, came as Conservative peers staged a defence of the hereditary principle during a House of Lords debate on the constitution.
Lord Richard, leader of the Opposition peers, said Labour was proposing reform in two stages - the removal of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Upper House and, second, "a major exercise of public consultation".
"We want to ensure that, as far as possible, the whole country can be involved in the consideration and determination of the precise nature and form that second chamber should finally take," Lord Richard said.
Of the 1,190 peers eligible to attend the House in the 1994-95 session, 755 enjoyed that right by accident of birth. Labour is pledged to move swiftly to abolish the rights of hereditary peers. The next stage is likely to be a Royal Commission to consider the powers of a new second chamber and how it should be elected. Its proposals could well be put to a referendum, a party source said.
Lord Richard gave short shrift to an offer by Viscount Cranborne, Leader of the House and a Cabinet minister, to co-operate if a victorious Mr Blair were to set up a Commons select committee to examine reform of the Lords instead of moving straight to end hereditary rights.
"I would be happy under those circumstances to recommend to your Lordships that we put our parliamentary privilege at the disposal of Another Place to the extent necessary to allow the select committee to do its work," said Lord Cranborne, whose title dates from 1603. Labour was offering "political revolution", he asserted.
But Lord Richard dismissed the offer as a recipe for "almost indefinite delay". If the issue had been put to the people and accepted,"is there not perhaps just a tinge of aristocratic superiority in the assumption that Lord Cranborne and his group know better than the people?"
Demolishing Lord Cranborne's claim that the built-in Tory majority was a "myth", Lord Richard said that in the 1988/89 session there were 172 Government victories in divisions and 12 defeats. If the votes of hereditary peers were excluded, there would have been 21 victories and 159 defeats.
Between 1979 and 1995 peers had defeated the Government 10 to 12 times a year. In 1974-79, under Labour, the average was 70 to 80 times.
Reform was supported by Labour's hereditary peers. Lord Strabolgi, whose 1318 title is one of the oldest, said his right to legislate was "absolutely indefensible". But he feared Labour's proposals had not been thought through and it would be better to let rights cease with the present holders.
There would be a rapid reduction in just two parliaments, he predicted. "Time would have brought its own solution."Reuse content