One ancient parliamentary tradition has stubbornly survived decades of attempts at modernisation, namely that the last day before the recess is the time for the government to produce an unpopular and perverse policy. Yesterday the tradition was observed by the beating of a retreat on House of Lords reform, in which the Government committed itself to an all-appointed second chamber "in a stable state for the medium-term".
This marks the formal abandonment of the search for a solution that included any elected element, and the final betrayal of the manifesto commitment to a democratic second chamber; in place of a House of Lords based on the hereditary principle, Britain will be given a House of Lords based on the patronage principle. In a touch of black humour, the announcement was made by Charlie Falconer, who owes his, elevated, place in Parliament to appointment by the Prime Minister, of whom he was once a flatmate.
The longer the Government has stayed in office, the more resistant it has become to letting the public have a say on who should represent them in the second chamber of their Parliament. The British people are now offered a second chamber with no elected members at all - an even worse outcome than the timid compromise recommended by the Wakeham Commission, or the proposal of the White Paper that 20 per cent of the membership should be elected. The White Paper was buried in derision not because it offered too much democracy, but because it offered too little. Yet the Government has responded to the controversy it provoked by resolving to offer no democracy at all.
The House of Commons must accept its share of the blame for this depressing outcome. When it was given the chance to vote on options for a reformed House of Lords, the Commons blew it by voting down every single option. A clear majority of MPs wanted one or other variant of a largely elected second chamber, but unfortunately they did not all vote for the same version, with the result that all the options for election were lost. We got close - tantalisingly close. But the fundamental difficulty was that for too many MPs the primary concern was that the second chamber should not be reformed too much, lest it came to rival the Commons.
The tragedy is that parliamentary democracy desperately needs bold modernisation. The alarming drop in general election turnout is only the most visible measure of public disaffection with the parliamentary process. The danger on which MPs should have focused is not an imaginary erosion of their power by a reformed Lords, but the remorseless erosion of esteem for Parliament among their electors. The prime need of the Commons is a credible second chamber as a partner in restoring public respect for Parliament. It cannot afford any longer to have one end of Westminster occupied by a chamber of limited legitimacy.
The disconnection between the electors and the elected is most acute among younger voters, most of whom failed to vote last time round. Bridge-building to the younger generation is unlikely to be helped by the fact that the average age of the present membership of the House of Lords is almost 70. It is unlikely that any system of elections would produce such a venerable cohort of candidates, but a system of appointment is always likely to focus on those who've already finished one career.
In a free society, legitimate political authority requires the consent of those who are expected to obey that authority. Legitimacy is conferred by democracy, and democracy is secured by elections. If absolutely no-one is elected to the second chamber, it will have little legitimacy. It will neither command the respect of the public nor compel the attention of the Government. The harsh reality is that a second chamber will be taken seriously only if it has to be taken seriously, and no Prime Minister need take too seriously a body to which he makes the largest number of appointments.
Yesterday's announcement is a timid policy, but in one sense it is a bold statement - it bravely swims against the tide of public opinion. There is a modern revulsion against party patronage, and appointment to a place in parliament in return for taking the party whip is the granddaddy of all political patronage. The problem is not just that those who are appointed may be less inclined to apply rigorous scrutiny to those to whom they owe their appointments. The trouble begins much earlier with all those who may aspire to appointment in return for good behaviour of value to their party leader. The reason why the public instinctively distrusts party patronage is that it infects the whole body politic.
Nor have the attempts to privatise the process of appointment rendered it any more popular. The Government's statement promises to put the present ad hoc appointments commission on a statutory footing, but its role is limited to a small minority of independent peers, and in truth it has not done much to exercise even that role. Yesterday also saw publication of the report of the appointments commission on its first three years, which reveals that it has not actually appointed anyone for over two years.
I can explain why. The first batch of independent peers that they picked was such a public relations disaster that ministers begged them not to do it again. There is, however, a paradox here. The same ministers who support the principle of an all-appointed second chamber recoil from the practice of appointing anyone because they know it will be unpopular with the public. Nor is this the fault of the members of the appointments commission, who are estimable people and whose only weakness is a tendency to appoint people like themselves. The problem is that any attempt to present the appointees as "people's peers" founders on the basic inconsistency that the people are allowed no say in choosing them.
That is why this latest retreat takes us straight back to the central political problem of this Government, namely the question of trust. It is not that we said one thing in opposition and now another in government, although it is true that a year before his election Tony Blair said that "we have always favoured an elected second chamber". Nor is it the insupportable contrast between the image that this Government courts as a force for modernisation and the reality of an unregenerate House of Lords.
No, the problem goes deeper. Trust is a reciprocal asset. If ministers want the public to trust them, then they must show that they trust the public to elect the right people to both chambers of parliament.
Michael Foot is currently celebrating his 90th birthday. He is enjoying a season in which he has been fêted in many eulogies, including earlier this week when he was with Tony Blair at a party in Number 10. One of Michael's greatest parliamentary campaigns stopped the Wilson government replacing the House of Lords with a House of Patronage. Those who now praise his remarkable life in politics could do worse than learn from his passionate commitment to democracy, and apply that lesson to the reform of the House of Lords.Reuse content