Lord Oakeshott: The next battle for the Lords must be its own reform

The people must pick their second chamber themselves, preferably mid-term every five years
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Monday the massed ranks of Conservative and cross-bench peers, with a very rare sighting of the golden-plumed Lord Heseltine, voted to block a supreme court.

On Monday the massed ranks of Conservative and cross-bench peers, with a very rare sighting of the golden-plumed Lord Heseltine, voted to block a supreme court.

If Labour could not persuade enough of its peers to turn out to get that Bill over its first hurdle, even with solid Liberal Democrat backing, its wider Lords Reform Bill must be dead on the drawing board.

Whatever the whinges about lack of consultation or where the new supreme court will sit, all real reformers must support the separation of judges from legislators and the long-overdue abolition of the deeply undemocratic office of Lord Chancellor - conflict of interest personified. We will do what we can to help the Government get this show back on the road.

But Liberal Democrats in both Houses of Parliament remain deeply sceptical about the Government's highly hyped, silkily spun but still invisible Bill to replace the hereditaries with an all-appointed House of Lords.

Tony Blair has kicked us twice into the long grass. First, on proportional representation (PR) for the Commons, and now on Lords reform, where he suddenly declared a "hybrid House" unacceptable in principle, although he saw no problem in his own 2001 election manifesto backing Lord Wakeham's proposal for a 20 per cent elected element in the Lords.

We are most likely to win constitutional reform from this Government when it is either very strong or pretty weak. In the first flush of victory, Tony Blair could have done anything he wanted - taken us into the euro, won a referendum on PR, or set up a mainly elected House of Lords.

Now the Government's authority has been gnawed away, along with any residual reforming zeal, only fear of a hung Parliament or too narrow a majority for his gung-ho governing style can make him pay the price of a Liberal Democrat insurance policy - real constitutional reform.

Twice bitten, third time we are very shy. We want to finish the job Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George left us, and remove the last 92 hereditaries as part of making the Lords more representative and democratic. But by ratting on its manifesto commitment to a more democratic second chamber, the Government has betrayed its commitment to constitutional reform.

Ministers are now talking up Billy Bragg's plan for peers to be nominated in each region after each general election in line with the shares of the popular vote. This is just repackaging the Government's own Lords Reform - the Next Steps. The Bragg/Falconer/Hain plan means an all-appointed House, just in fairer proportions. The party leaders or machines will still pick the peers, with all the disadvantages of closed lists or patronage. Why deprive the voters of the right to choose the candidate they want, and force them to vote for the same party to represent them in both Houses of Parliament? That would discredit democracy.

The people must pick their second chamber themselves, preferably on a "Super Thursday" every five years, like mid-term elections in the United States, voting for the European Parliament, Scotland, Wales, London, the regions and local councils, with half the members of the Upper House directly elected for 10-year terms.

It is pointless trying to resurrect the Joint Committee on Lords Reform in this Parliament. We started with high hopes but the Labour whips had done their job only too well, packing it with deadbeat Labour backbenchers to block any form of elected Lords. The no-changers on the committee kept reminding us that the primacy of the elected chamber must not be challenged by a partly elected upper house. A firm democratic lead from the Commons votes would have scuppered that argument. But reform is dead until we get a Commons vote for a majority elected Lords.

Will the main Bill pass the Lords? The Tories are implacably opposed, we are sceptical, Labour is lukewarm, and the cross-benchers are hostile.

The Government has a mountain to climb - warm words in the foothills won't work.

Meanwhile the party strengths in the House of Lords, even with the rump of hereditaries, still match the shares of the popular vote cast for the three main parties at the last general election more closely than our grotesque gerrymander of a House of Commons, where Labour holds almost two-thirds of the seats on two-fifths of the vote.

The only way to "Third Stage Reform" of the Lords is for Tony Blair to find his reverse gear and make a clear manifesto commitment to a second chamber with a directly elected majority, as the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will at the next election. After a free vote in the new House of Commons, we should then set up a new Joint Committee with the authority and mandate to complete, once and for all, the unfinished business from 1911.

The author, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, served as a Liberal Democrat on the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform