Donald Macintyre: Whatever happened to democracy, Mr Blair?

'The logic of the policy on the Lords is that ministers now have no excuse to reject reform of the Commons'
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The hopes for the new politics which Labour promised when they came into office in 1997 rested above all on one relatively simple – but, in the context of late 20th-century British political history, revolutionary – proposition. It was that having been exemplary democrats in opposition they would continue to be so in office. To have believed this seems impossibly romantic now. Is this not the way of the world? Does not every party call for better scrutiny of the executive in opposition and then forget about it once in office?

And yet that wasn't how it looked at the beginning. For it was the very claim that this time the cycle of cynicism would be broken that seemed to be new. "The Conservatives seem opposed to the very idea of democracy," thundered the 1997 manifesto. "There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system."

Well, if there was a crisis, it still exists. Indeed, given the lamentable 59 per cent turnout in the 2001 general election – unprecedented since the introduction of universal suffrage – it has got a good deal worse. Opinion polls suggest electors no longer regard either of the main parties as sleazier than the other. And to give but one example of supposed democratic advance, the Scottish Parliament has proved incapable – as is all too painfully clear just now – of finding a 21st-century leadership remotely equal to the noble aspirations with which it was launched.

What then of central government? The already almost forgotten – and all too forgettable – Freedom of Information Act, which Tony Blair said in 1996 was "fundamental to the way we see politics developing in the next few years", was steadily emasculated in its passage through Cabinet. Now even its implementation is threatened with delay – for a range of entirely spurious reasons – until 2004 or 2005.

On Freedom of Information Lord Irvine was, to his great credit, a radical reformer stamped on by his colleagues from the Prime Minister down. The same cannot be reported of the Lords White Paper which he published yesterday. Let what can be said in its defence be said. The Government has done something which there were lively fears before the general election that it wouldn't. The Tories' bleatings for a larger democratic element are wholly unconvincing – or will be, other than in the unlikely event that Iain Duncan Smith can find the courage and vision to overcome the vested interests of Tory peers and exploit Labour backbench discontent in the Commons and his own party's numerical strength in the Lords to force a genuinely elected second chamber into being. The Tories had their chance in the last Parliament – preferring instead to allow Lord Cranborne to be suckered by the Prime Minister into a deal which had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with saving the skins of existing peers, life and (for a year or two) hereditary.

And that's about it. For it turns out that even the best of three bad options contained in the Wakeham Royal Commission's report – which would have allowed about a third of peers to be elected – proved too radical for the Government. Those who want the Government to go much, much further include the many dozens of Labour MPs – many of them impeccably mainstream – who have signed an Early Day Motion calling for a "wholly or substantially" elected second chamber: Lord Hurd, Kenneth Clarke, the former Tory Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay (who saw little wrong with a fully elected senate), the former Labour Leader of the Lords Lord Richard, and the redoubtable backbench Tory Andrew Tyrie. All are too subversive for a Government which now invites us to congratulate it for a system in which a clear majority will be subject to undiluted patronage, a fifth put in by a discredited Appointments Commission which the White Paper quaintly praises, and a further miserable fifth by actual election.

To these complaints, the Government argues that anything more would undermine the legitimacy of the Commons. I do not believe this for a moment. Would a half-elected Lords have supremacy over a fully elected Commons? But the poverty of this argument is more profound than that. What Commons legitimacy, one is tempted to ask? This argument for a breathtaking lack of trust in the electors would have a great deal more validity if the Government had so much as lifted a finger to strengthen the Commons' powers of scrutiny over the executive, or to release the – anyway too low-powered – Select Committees from the clammy grip of the party whips.

Which brings us to the Leader of the Commons, Robin Cook. Mr Cook fought a lonely, and largely unsuccessful, battle in the Cabinet for a bigger elected element and for a White Paper with "greener" edges – ie a more flexible one. I'm told that Lord Irvine was far from being his only opponent, and had the strong support, for example, of David Blunkett and Jack Straw.

But Mr Cook is also beginning to show a commendable interest in Commons reforms that go further than ensuring hours which are convenient for its members. He is on record as pronouncing that "good scrutiny means good government" – an obvious truth but in this Government also a revolutionary one. The question is whether he will get his way over the Commons as he failed to do over the Lords.

War overshadows these mundanely domestic issues. Not, it should be said, for the fatuous reason advanced only by those who still don't get how much the world was changed by 11 September and unbelievably think Tony Blair shouldn't be travelling at present. That isn't the problem at all. Indeed, while Lord Irvine may have been his executor, the White Paper bears the unmistakeable and active imprint of a Prime Minister keenly aware of the domestic agenda.

No, it overshadows these issues by creating the notion that they don't matter. But they do. Anything which even temporarily slows the government machine is seen as interfering with the divine right of a winner-takes-all administration to get its business through. That's not of course what Labour used to say about the poll tax. And what of its own U-turns from asylum to tuition fees? Isn't it possible that a more robust legislature might have prevented these – admitted – mistakes in the first place?

But that isn't all. One of many factors behind low turn-out is that people are increasingly disillusioned about their democratic rights being limited to a single binary choice every four or five years. For all its deficiencies, Parliament remains the best channel of grievance and protest. But the more you fail to refresh its representative capacity, the more you increase the disillusionment, and, in the long run, take the risk that the grievance and protest will be expressed in other, more menacing ways.

It's just possible, as Robin Cook indicated yesterday, that there could be changes to the proposals. But at best these will be marginal. Broadly we will be stuck with them. The logic of the Government's own position on the Lords is that it now has no excuse to reject real reform of the Commons.