The Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords are the product of 18 years in opposition and four and a quarter in office. Unfortunately, it has come up with a set of proposals so fatally flawed that they will leave a reformed upper chamber substantially weaker and significantly more illegitimate. So what exactly are this Government's thoughts on the creation of a parliament "fit for the 21st century"?
The 1999 White Paper clearly identified the Lords' lack of legitimacy as the central reason for reform: "For each Parliament to carry out its purpose, it must act with authority and integrity. Each component part must also possess the legitimacy to support its role in the process. The present House of Lords suffers from a lack of legitimacy because of its anachronistic and unrepresentative composition."
Under Government proposals, the hereditary principle in politics will finally disappear. This I welcome. I believe that this reform is long overdue and I regret that Harold Wilson's government failed to enact the 1968 reform proposals which would have gone some way to achieving this. In the first century of the third millennium it is impossible to justify someone's place in the legislator simply by an accident of birth.
However, the Government's view of "a democratic and representative second chamber" differs markedly from my own. It proposes an Upper House with an eventual limit of 600 Members of the Lords (MLs) after a 10-year adjustment period. Of the 600 MLs, 120 would be elected representatives, although the precise method of election has still to be determined; 120 crossbenchers selected by the Appointments Commission and a limited number of Law Lords and bishops. This would leave around 300 MLs to be nominated directly by the party leaders.
This, clearly, is not the answer to increasing the legitimacy of the House of Lords. Quite the opposite. In fact; the Prime Minister intends to create a new House of Lords – "Mr Blair's poodle" to replace the one described by David Lloyd George as "Mr Balfour's poodle".
The Upper House will remain mainly appointed. This is exactly what the Prime Minister wants. Instead of an elected and legitimate Upper House, robust enough to help hold the Government properly to account, Tony Blair will have a chamber made up of political appointees covered by the fig leaf of the elected and independently nominated MLs. The party leaders will use their power to nominate MLs much as they use life peerages now – as a retirement home for long-serving or troublesome backbenchers, a a way of creating vacancies in safe seats for political favourites, or as rewards for major financial donors. It is also not clear whether or not the Prime Minister will retain, free from scrutiny, the power to nominate MLs to serve as ministers.
There is no other democratic country in the world with a second chamber where the majority of members are appointed instead of being directly, or even indirectly, elected. The impotent Upper House, even more lacking in legitimacy than the old House of Lords, that the Government intends to create, will cause no difficulty to an increasingly presidential Prime Minister who sees the both Houses of Parliament as an obstacle to good governance rather than an essential part of it.
Mr Blair seems to have borrowed the concept of "democratic centralism" – the basis on which the early Soviet Communist Party "elections" operated – for his own Government's proposals. I shall have to resist the temptation to draw further comparisons between the operation of the early Soviet Communist Party and Mr Blair's Labour Party. He has taken the opportunity, created by the need to begin stage two of Lords reform, to curtail further that House's powers using the bogus argument that a reduction in powers for the Upper House's will lead to an increase in their use!
I believe the time has come for a fully elected Upper House. The powers given the Upper House, if carefully regulated, need not interfere with the primacy of the House of Commons. My view is shared by the 155 backbench Labour MPs who have signed Early Day Motion 226: "That this House supports the democratic principle that any revised Second Chamber... should be wholly or substantially elected." I believe it should be wholly elected.
The fate of the Upper House rests with these backbench MPs. In alliance with my party and the Liberal Democrats they could force the Government to think again. If they rebel and throw out the Government's proposals there is a real chance that this country will, for the first time, have a properly functioning parliamentary system with a fully legitimate Upper House which can help to hold the government of the day to account. Otherwise we shall be left as the only democracy with a bicameral parliament where membership of the Upper House is dependant upon political patronage.
The author was Conservative prime minister from 1970 to 1974