The fog of battle can give cover to all sorts of nefarious activities, and not only on the battlefield. Within days, the Government is expected to produce a White Paper on Lords reform – and hopes that no one will notice. For it will be one of the most inadequate white papers ever published: an idle, shallow, sloppily argued document whose authors have no confidence in their own handiwork. Above all, it will be a cynical exercise by a Government which hopes to push through a major constitutional change with a minimum of forethought and an absolute minimum of public debate.
It is clear what Mr Blair wants from a reformed House of Lords. He would like a combination of an echo chamber and a chamber of cronies. He intends to ensure that the new House will barely dare to criticise Government proposals, let alone impede them. He has never believed his ministers should be inconvenienced by having to argue the merits of their proposed law making; he knows that they are not very good at it.
Up to now, however, the House of Lords has been an awkward place, full of independent-minded people who will listen to the debates and cast their votes accordingly. So if a minister loses an argument on the floor of the House, the Government is in danger of losing the subsequent vote. Mr Blair regards this as unforgivable; he is determined to stamp out independent mindedness.
He is equally uninterested in extending democracy. In his original assault on the Upper House, Mr Blair appeared to be starting from the moral high ground. That hereditary legislators were an anomaly was widely agreed. When the new Government announced that the peers' chamber would be replaced by a peoples' chamber, it won a lot of unthinking support.
It is now clear that Mr Blair never intended to allow the people to have much say in selecting the members of their new chamber. In the last parliament, Mr Blair commissioned Lord Wakeham to produce a report on the future of the Lords, knowing that Lord Wakeham had little enthusiasm for an elected house. The Wakeham Report is a tepid document, which offers a number of options, including a minimal elected element of no more than 20 per cent. The Government intends to choose the least democratic option which John Wakeham suggested.
Indeed, Mr Blair is solely interested in the Lords as an opportunity for prime ministerial patronage. The lure of titles and ermine has been crucial in Labour's campaign to win over City supporters. Were it not for this crony factor, Mr Blair might have been tempted to abolish the Lords altogether. Instead, he will content himself with destroying its ethos, its independence and its dignity.
There would appear to be an easy response. Most of those who oppose Mr Blair's plans will argue that the only way to reform the House of Lords is to democratise it. It is likely that the Conservative opposition will go down this road, for it will be simple to out flank Mr Blair by calling for more elections, more popular participation and reduced scope for cronyism.
It is an obvious reposte; and a wrong one. In contemporary Britain, democracy has one problem: persuading people to vote. At the latest elections for the European Parliament, the turnout lost its deposit; the same is true of most elections for local government. Even at the last general election, fewer than three in five voters could be bothered to go to the polling both. If elections were held for the House of Lords, all records might be broken for abstention and uninterest. The danger would be that low-grade elections would produce low-grade material; instead of the House of Lords being independent, it would be dominated by party hacks, using the Lords as an apprenticeship, and hoping that if they impress their whips' offices, they might, in time, be able to move on to the Commons.
There would be a further danger. An elected House might fail to attract the voters' attention, but it would still have the legitimacy conferred upon it by its supposed democratic status. Equally, electing a House of Lords would be pointless unless it had a different electoral cycle from the Commons. In practice, this would probably mean that the Lords' elections were held in the Commons' midterm.
But consider the consequences. In all normal circumstances, governments lose midterm elections. So we can assume that any government would find itself in a minority in the House of Lords by the end of the first half of the parliament. This would lead to deadlock.
In the old House of Lords, Labour governments were in a permanent minority. But that did not matter. As long as the Lords lacked democratic legitimacy, it might be able to force a Labour government to think again or to concede minor points, but it could do nothing to prevent such a government carrying its manifesto pledges into law.
This illustrates the basic choice which Lords reformers ought to make, and which has nothing to do with the House of Lords. Those who believe that the primary purpose of the Lords ought to be the obstruction of the House of Commons – in order to ensure that an elective dictatorship could never emerge, with an executive using its whipped majority of supine backbenchers to pass whatever laws it pleases – ought, therefore, to be in favour of an elected upper chamber.
But those who believe that Britain's robust democratic culture is an informal check and balance on the dictatorial ambitions of elected governments might well conclude that the present system has advantages. We give our prime ministers powers which their European counterparts envy, plus a four- or five-year contract. The corollary is that no excuses will be tolerated. At the end of the contract, the PM cannot plead gridlock or lack of opportunity: he must stand or fall by his record. Those who can see merits in an elective dictatorship tempered by electoral assassination should oppose the whole concept of a democratic House of Lords.
There is an alternative to a democratic House of Lords. We could have a House with an independent spirit which could give governments disinterested advice, reinforced by warnings in the division lobbies – without, ultimately, being able to frustrate the will of the elected chamber. A House of Lords, in other words, rather like the House of Lords which Mr Blair inherited.
The old Lords might have appeared outdated. But it had one strong argument in its favour. It worked. The onus ought to have been on those who favoured reform, who should have been required to prove that their reforms would bring improvements. Mr Blair's reforms do no such thing, and nor would an elected chamber.
A simple solution would be to restore the status quo ante-1997; to leave the old Lords in place until a government can make a convincing case for a better one. This reactionary reform is unlikely to happen, but that does not make it a bad idea. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.Reuse content