Labour MPs should revolt over Lords reform, not higher education

A rebellion over the plan for the Lords would be a serious blow against the most undemocratic aspect of Blair's premiership
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The Independent Online

It's Götterdämmerung. Having explicitly put his authority on the line, Tony Blair implicitly raises the spectre of a Wagnerian worst-case scenario in which his flagship bill on top-up fees is engulfed by flames in January and with it, in all probability, his own premiership, his inability to deliver his own party plain for all to see.

But that's not all that is engulfed in the process. If a confidence vote follows it's highly unlikely it, too, would be lost. Labour MPs are hardly going to be ready for a New Year general election. But the Bill's defeat would hand to the leader of a newly energised if highly opportunistic Opposition a parliamentary victory bigger than any in 20 years, a potential campaigning platform for the crucial, increasingly election-conscious, months ahead. As the first Wilson government lost momentum and credibility with the defeat of the strike curbs in Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife, so too might Labour now.

That's the sub-text of the stark question now confronting the Labour dissidents after Blair's press conference on Tuesday and his address to the Parliamentary Labour Party yesterday. Is this what they are really prepared for? On the face of it the answer appears to be a resounding yes. Nottingham University's indefatigable Philip Cowley points out in his latest analysis of the 140 Labour MPs who have signed a hostile Commons motion that a majority are fearless enough to have rebelled before, and that an overlapping majority have several times before expressed their antagonism to top-up fees. Which suggests they will not easily be swayed.

In such a volatile climate, it is hardly a surprise that an unusual decision taken by the House of Lords on Tuesday night has been barely noticed. For the first time since 1914, the Upper House sent back the Queen's Speech with an amendment complaining about plans for constitutional change that affect it directly: the creation of the new Supreme Court and the so-called further reform of the Lords.

On one level this is a bit of procedural flummery of no real consequence. On another, however, it serves to expose what should certainly be one of the most contentious elements of the Queen's Speech - one about which there has been so far only the minimum of complaint from Blair's dissident tormentors. Leaving the new Supreme Court aside for another day, the change to the Lords could hardly be a bleaker or a more shameful testament to the demise of what might have been a bold and democratising measure. All it does is to eliminate the remaining hereditary peers, elected from their own number, leaving firmly in place a wholly-appointed House of Lords.

Is the Commons going to let this happen? It rather looks as if it may. Several arguments will be deployed by those, including the Prime Minister, who want to ensure it does. One will be that back in February when, to his great credit, Robin Cook, as Leader of the House, sought to secure a mainly elected second chamber, the Commons voted - by a mere three votes - against easily the best available option, that of an 80 per cent-elected House.

That argument would have much more force if it hadn't also voted down all the other options including - by a majority of nearly 100 votes - an all-appointed House of Lords.

The Commons is therefore being asked to approve a dismal little measure that entrenches the very option they were most against nine months ago. And of course those who vote against the Bill will now be told that they are being reactionary by voting against the final abolition of the hereditary peers.

They should resist this specious argument. Hereditary peers are an abomination in the 21st century, but their continued presence hardly makes a difference if the alternative is no more than a self-reinforcing vehicle for Prime Ministerial patronage. Particularly when the Government, having proclaimed the greater legitimacy of an appointed chamber over a hereditary one, now lose no opportunity, whenever the Lords uses its revising powers to do something the Government doesn't like, to proclaim its illegitimacy as an unelected chamber.

So what on earth has this admittedly second order issue got to do with top-up fees? Only this. It is no disrespect to those who are strongly and in principle opposed to top-up fees to say the huge effort ministers have now begun to deploy may succeed, if not in shrinking the rebellion, at least in winning the argument.

The Government's case for making up a universally acknowledged higher education funding gap in this way - one, as Blair belatedly but correctly acknowledged on Tuesday, of social justice - is very powerful. The deepest social inequalities in education, the ones that need the greatest funds, are in schools where there is still a searing gap between the best, including private education, and the worst.

Even after the introduction of the supposedly deterrent tuition fees, there is little or no difference between the proportions of those in all social classes going on to higher education if they get the requisite A levels. The problem is adjusting the huge imbalance between the poor and the well-off in being able to get those A levels in the first place. Maybe it would have been better to call this a graduate tax, as the Australians call an almost identical scheme. But make no mistake, a pure graduate tax (3p in the pound for 25 years if you include maintenance) cannot be hypothecated, except on the whim of successive Chancellors who choose to do so.

To put it crudely, the arguments for a full scale rebellion over the indefensibly undemocratic proposal for the Lords are actually more powerful, not to mention being backed last February by forward looking ministers like Charles Clarke, David Miliband and Douglas Alexander. It would be a serious blow against the most undemocratic aspect of the Blair premiership.

There are many reasons that MPs rebel. Goodness knows Blair has used up much of his political capital in the party mainly but not only over Iraq. Although Gordon Brown has now scrupulously stated his support for what is after all government policy, ministerial supporters of top-up fees will still be looking for him to use his influence to try to persuade those of his allies prominent among the dissenters to fall into line.

On one reading this is a no-lose situation for Brown. As Jim Callaghan opposed Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife and went on, eventually, to become Prime Minister, he could of course be the beneficiary of seeing Blair brought down. Alternatively he could demonstrate the extent of Blair's dependence and his own power by rescuing him. On another reading the collapse of the policy would damage his legacy almost as much as Blair's authority. Either way, however, if MPs want to show their displeasure with the Prime Minister they would do better to consider an issue on which they are on the right side of history rather than the wrong one.