Can it really be true that Tony Blair is about to strengthen Parliament?

An elected majority in the House of Lords would be a turning point. The prize, in other words, is real. And the omens are good
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The Independent Online

Unless Richard Desmond, the Daily Express and soft-porn publisher, is actually ennobled in return for the £100,000 he gave the Labour Party early last year, it's hard to see an obvious connection between the latest row over political funding and the proposals for Lords reform announced by the Government yesterday. But that doesn't mean that there isn't one. Each in its own way bears on the problem dramatised by the historically low turnout in last year's general election: cynicism towards the political process.

Indeed there is no less an authority for the link than the 1997 Labour manifesto, which, under the headline "We will clean up politics", deliberately put the two distinct issues of party funding and Lords reform first and second on its wish list. Five years on, neither has yet been been completed. Yes, the Government has made its sources of funding more transparent. But anybody who thinks that transparency alone was enough to restore faith in politics simply doesn't understand the public effect, fair or not, of such donations. The sooner the Government moves to tighter electoral spending curbs and public funding, the better for public trust.

But on the second of these issues, the Government may be doing something pretty big. Let's not be too grudging just because it's been an awfully long time coming. The decision to leave the composition of a new second chamber to MPs and peers themselves is quite a dramatic change of the Government's style in dealing with Parliament. Potentially, it's much more than that, a decisive, even exciting, moment for constitutional reform.

The executive is yielding up the power to reform a part of the legislature to the legislature itself. In stark contrast to the first stage of reform, which was left to a backroom fix between Tony Blair and the Tory aristocrat Lord Cranborne, the mechanism and, with luck, the outcome, will represent an advance for democracy.

The announcement kicks into life the real prospect of legislation within a year to transform an Upper House at present indefensibly made up of a combination of appointed peers and self-elected hereditaries into one in which – eventually – more than half its members are elected.

What's more, the first elections could take place at the same time as the next general election. If so, they will extend plural democracy not least because the electors, if they so choose, will be able to vote for one party to govern and another to represent them in a second, revising, chamber. There is a much better than even chance that the Upper House representatives will be elected for two parliamentary terms, making them less subject to pressure from the party whips than their Commons counterparts. And while Lord Irvine valiantly insisted in the Lords yesterday that his much criticised White Paper of last January had not been "shelved", its central proposal that a mere fifth of members will be elected is dead and gone.

What's more, given that the details of a bill will now be left – once the Commons and Lords have decided how many of the latter's members should be elected – to an all-party committee of backbench peers and MPs, the final shape of the bill could look pretty different from other aspects of the White Paper, too. To take one example: one of the better proposals in Lord Wakeham's original report was that a new Independent Appointments Commission should have the final say in choosing the non-elected members. This was an admirable brake on prime ministerial patronage; it was rejected in the White Paper. It would hardly be surprising if it came back now.

In all these respects, therefore, yesterday was a good one for Robin Cook, who back in January was a rather lonely figure within the Cabinet in regarding Lord Irvine's proposals as much too timid or authoritarian, depending on your point of view. This had to do with more than the fun he poked at Eric Forth, the shadow Leader of the Commons, by contrasting his ungenerous response with the graceful one of Lord Strathclyde, Forth's counterpart in the Lords. For Cook has harnessed a widespread sense of grievance – among many Tory as well as probably a majority of Labour MPs – at the idea that the Government could get away with such a pitiful number of elected members in the second chamber.

Having understandably smarted at being summarily moved from the Foreign Office, Cook has taken to his new job as a Leader of the Commons, looking more and more like a real reformer. The actual idea of a free vote may have been devised as much by Mr Blair's advisers as by Mr Cook. But the change of heart at the top was in response to pressure, partly from backbenchers and partly from Mr Cook himself.

So far, so good. But while we shouldn't be grudging, we shouldn't – yet – be too euphoric either. The free-vote approach isn't entirely free of Blairite subtlety. In some ways it neatly lets the Government off the hook. It will take some of the credit if reform succeeds, but very little blame if it fails. If the campaign for a substantially elected Upper House implodes now, it won't any longer be the Government's fault. It will be that of Parliament.

On peers, MPs and, above all, on the Parliamentary Labour Party, there now falls a great responsibility. This isn't any longer a matter of chafing from the sidelines at the control freakery of the Government. The challenge for Labour MPs – and the surprisingly large number of Tory MPs who share their desire for real reform – is to deploy the undoubted majority of MPs in favour of a much more democratic Lords behind a single option that neither the Lords nor the Government can ignore. That may mean a degree of compromise on all sides, including by those who want a wholly elected second chamber, but who in seeking one risk provoking opposition from those who fear that this could give the Lords something dangerously like parity with the Commons.

What that should mean, however, is an elected majority in the second chamber. And that would be a turning point. After that, surely, the long-term trend in some future, third, stage of reform would surely be for more elected members. The prize, in other words, is real. And the omens are good; a survey in January of Labour MPs by the reformist Graham Allen established that on average they sought an elected element of about 58 per cent.

The bill, if and when when it comes, will start in the Commons. And if the Lords try to block it, they will be exposed as a life peer preservation society. And if that doesn't deter them – as it may well do – then the Government should be prepared to invoke the Parliament Act.

It will come to that, of course, only if the Commons now rises to the challenge. But if it does, Robin Cook will have succeeded where Dick Crossman failed more than a generation ago. Labour's 1997 promises to make the Lords "more democratic and representative" will have been fulfilled. And a little faith in the democratic process will have been restored.