Reform of the House of Lords is rather like the collapse of the euro. There is much talk about the prospect, and yet it never seems to happen. A traveller from Mars would witness a House of Lords largely unchanged from previous centuries, a non-elected second chamber with a composition that borders on the absurd: "Over there is a retired police officer and an author of whodunnits. Ah, here comes a bishop."
The degree to which reform is talked about and never followed through is as casually undemocratic as the chamber itself. At the last election, all three major parties pledged reform, as Labour and the Liberal Democrats have done for decades. Once an election is out of the way, nothing happens, or rather a lot happens in terms of commissions, committees and reviews, but nothing changes. Even the single reform under New Labour was a silly outcome. The Abolition of Hereditary Peers (But Not All of Them) Bill stands as a symbol of radical intent that dissolved into muddled compromise and, in the case of wider reform, determined paralysis.
The contrast with the stance of the parties before an election is striking but unsurprising. The current House of Lords is impossible to justify during an election campaign, not least when leaders seek to appear "modern" and "progressive". Instead, the argument for reform is deployed as a weapon to symbolise modernity. Once in power, or even in opposition, the enthusiasm of the two bigger parties wanes within half a second of an election campaign ending.
At which point the same spurious arguments surface. During the economic boom, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown discovered other matters that demanded the attention of the legislators. Now the economic crisis is an excuse, as if every MP and peer is engaged directly in resolving the emergency and has no time for other matters. In reality, MPs find time to debate parking spaces around Westminster. The fate of the economy will not be determined by whether MPs debate proposals to modernise the Lords.
There are obvious drawbacks, but they come with democracy in all forms. Given the mediocre quality of many MPs, I dread to think who might get elected to a second chamber with explicitly less power than the Commons. Voters are indifferent to democratic politics, so why burden them with more ballot papers when they get more excited about the progress of England in Euro 2012? Yet it is the Conservative wing of the Coalition that has already provided the answer to this by pressing ahead with elections for police commissioners. If Conservatives feel the need to make police chiefs accountable to voters, they must surely agree to make a legislative chamber elected, too. The persistent fear that an elected or largely elected second chamber would undermine the Commons is addressed by making explicit its much more limited remit.
The status quo is a cause for more fears. As The Independent has revealed this week in a series of reports, there are some peers who take, at best, a relaxed attitude towards the rules that apply to their very privileged vocation. Perhaps they would have been as complacent if they were in the Commons, but I doubt it. Facing voters every few years in an election keeps most elected representatives on their toes, or least on a toe or two.
But few in parliament want to dance. The reform of the Lords was not only a commitment from all three parties before the election, it was also part of the Coalition agreement in the immediate aftermath. None of this seems to matter. There are expressions of outrage from a growing number of Conservative MPs that Nick Clegg has the cheek to press ahead, as if he was announcing from nowhere a proposal to abolish all seats that did not elect a Lib Dem MP. Such has been the intensity of concern that a rare cabinet committee of ministers has met to consider precisely what will be included when the Bill is published next week. It consisted of those who negotiated the Coalition agreement. In this case ministers with concerns about the reform also attended.
The exhaustive process is illuminating. The Health Bill which will cause chaos in the NHS appeared without any internal scrutiny. Lords reform, which all parties agree on in theory, is the subject of relentless negotiation prior to the bill's publication. Compromises aimed at reassuring Tory MPs that an elected Lords will not undermine the Commons include changes to constituency size and to the proposed voting method in elections, but there will be no offer of a referendum.
This is unlikely to stop a significant Tory revolt, which presents Labour with a tactical dilemma. Ed Miliband could probably defeat the proposals in the Commons if Labour votes against. So far, the leadership has claimed that it will not support them without a referendum. There is a study to be done about the use of referendums, or more precisely the offer of referendums, as a tactical device by leaders who are deeply sceptical about this form of direct democracy. I write as an opponent of referendums, but even its few principled advocates should pause to reflect on the sequence they propose in relation to the Lords.
The first set of elections for the second chamber is scheduled for 2015 on the date of the next general election. A referendum would therefore be held in 2014, the same year as one is planned on the historic issue of Scottish independence. There is something darkly comical about national leaders unable to engage fully with the UK's future in the Scottish referendum because they will be putting the case for or against a reformed Lords when at the last election they were all supposed to be in favour.
Constitutional change only occurs when it is in the interest of the parties with the power to bring about change. Tempting though it is for Labour to join Tory rebels in wrecking Clegg's plans, it is in their longer-term interest to side with the Lib Dems and leave David Cameron to explain why some of his MPs are so vehemently opposed. But measuring self-interest is a subjective exercise and Labour may well opt for the short-term hit, even though Clegg and Miliband have met several times to discuss the issue.
How perverse that Clegg's reforms face a near impossible legislative journey when far more partisan policies have sailed through parliament and are now being implemented with reckless haste.