Donald Macintyre: Parliament must now try to grasp its own destiny

'Government proposals to reform the Lords won't begin to satisfy a majority of MPs'
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The Independent Online

It has been one of the peculiar achievements of Lord Irvine's White Paper on the House of Lords – subtitled with wonderful inaptness "Completing the Reform" – that it makes the findings of Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission look good. The Wakeham report, when it appeared two years ago, was widely criticised, and justly so. In particular, it was ridiculed for the assumption by a majority of its members that, in a modern 21st-century upper house with necessarily, if severely, limited powers of legislation and scrutiny, it was defensible that fewer than a quarter of its participants should be elected by the public. There were nevertheless some valuable curbs in his proposals on prime ministerial and party patronage – which we'll come to in a moment.

What will become increasingly clear this week as both the Lords and Commons hold their first debates on the White Paper, is that the Government has deftly rejected the best parts of Wakeham while retaining the worst. In the latter category, it has stipulated that a mere fifth of the new house's members should be elected. As will become apparent on Thursday, this won't begin to satisfy a majority of MPs, who appear to have a rather clearer understanding of the inexplicability of such a policy in the outside world than the Government does. 177 of them, almost exclusively Labour and Liberal Democrat, have already signed a Commons motion affirming the "democratic principle that any revised second chamber should be wholly or substantially elected".

At least as interesting, however, is the change of mood among Tory MPs. When the assiduous Tory backbencher Andrew Tyrie first started campaigning for a democratised Lords in 1997, he found that around 10 per cent of Conservative MPs – most of whom were still wedded to the idea of a hereditary peerage – supported him. It now emerges from private soundings by the Tory whips that those in favour of an at least half-elected chamber amount to some 75 per cent of Tory MPs. It's now surely inevitable that Iain Duncan Smith will have no choice but to outflank the Government and declare himself in favour of a more radical democratic option. By doing so he ought to be able to count on a sufficiently large Labour rebellion to defeat a government Bill based on the White Paper. If it happened, this would not only inflict the first Commons defeat in the Blair government's history but would be on one of the very few issues on which the Tories would be in line with opinion in the country.

There are, however, at least two caveats. The first concerns the peers themselves, Labour and Tory alike. Oddly, the problem isn't so much the remaining hereditaries – the brightest of whom are beginning to see that their only chance of long term survival might actually to be elected under a genuinely democratic system – but the appointed life peerage itself, rapidly becoming at least as entrenched a vested interest as the hereditaries were in the old order. True, both Wakeham and the White Paper guarantee that existing life peers will keep the right to stay for life. But they fear being second-class citizens, working alongside elected Lords' members who are elected. And the larger that elected element, the livelier that fear will be. The second point is that the deal makers are already at work. Given both the level of Commons resistance and the fact that Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, is known to be unhappy with the proposals as they stand, governmental minds are already turning towards a possible compromise whereby perhaps 35 per cent – the maximum suggested by Wakeham – are directly elected. What is more, the underlying threat is that this could be a "take it or leave it" option. If the Labour Commons dissidents were not prepared to accept such a compromise, they could be faced with there being no second stage Bill at all, in which case some of them might choose to defend the bad against the worse.

Among those suggesting that a 35 per cent compromise would be tolerable is the Constitution Unit's admirable Professor Robert Hazell, who is advising the Commons Select Committee on Public Administration, which takes evidence from Lord Wakeham on the White Paper on Thursday. I think Professor Hazell fails to take sufficiently into account the appetite for more radical reform in the Commons, not to mention the obloquy that the Government would suffer – not least from the Labour rank and file – if it threatened not to legislate at all. That would leave in place not only an election-free chamber but nearly 100 hereditaries preserved under the sweetheart deal made in the last parliament by Lord Cranborne with Tony Blair. Which is why Labour backbenchers should make their first task to extract a clear promise that the Government will indeed legislate. But in the Constitution Unit's latest bulletin, Hazell performs a valuable service by underlining the most breathtaking omissions in the White Paper.

As Lord Wakeham will undoubtedly point out this week – highly embarrassingly for the Government – they have rejected two especially sensible proposals in his report. One was that a new Independent Appointments Commission should have the final say in choosing the non-elected members of the Lords, including party politicians. And the second was that elected members should serve for terms of around 15 years. The first would significantly reduce the patronage of the party leaders, including the Prime Minister, ensuring that political nominees were not just party hacks. The second would ensure that the elected members were not sacrificing their independence by looking over their shoulders at the whips and worrying if they were going to be reselected next time. Both would have made the Lords more independent without in any way threatening the Government's right to see its business through. It says a great deal about Tony Blair's attitude to parliament, not to mention his addiction to patronage, that Lord Wakeham, one of the foxiest pragmatists in British post-war politics, was still too high-minded a reformer for the Prime Minister.

Why does any of this matter? Because at a time when cynicism about politicians is at greater heights than it has ever been, the electorate has a right to more than, in the brutal words of the White Paper, answering the question every five years or so "Whom do you choose to govern you?" Because the function of parliament is to do more than confer the trappings of legitimacy on the government of the day. It is to force the government to explain itself and in doing so to become a better and more responsive government.

When cabinet government is significantly deader than it was under Margaret Thatcher, it's truer than ever, and certainly truer than when Lord Hailsham coined the phrase that we are living in an elective dictatorship. The Public Administration Committee should certainly demand at least a 50-50 system of election and appointment. And MPs must amend the Bill to include Wakeham's minimum requirements on the Appointments Commission and length of elected terms. For once it's up to Parliament to grasp its own destiny.