Steve Richards: The Lords is undemocratic and increasingly silly

Clegg is right to push on. Nearly all opposition is on Machiavellian grounds rather than principle

Share

Constitutional reforms happen only when they are in the self-interest of those with the power to make them. A leader who instigates a constitutional reform not in the interests of his or her party is a noble human being – and a very poor leader. The problem with House of Lords reform is that party advantage is almost impossible to measure, at least for the two bigger parties. As a result nothing very much changes, even though the major parties are theoretically committed to reform. After much huffing and puffing they tend to opt for the relative safety of the status quo.

There was so much of it in the New Labour era I feel exhausted already merely thinking about another huff and puff. There were at least two theoretical attempts under Tony Blair, and a further one under Gordon Brown. A lot of the time Jack Straw had the unofficial title of Minister for Constitutional Reform Without Introducing Very Much Reform (although he deserves much credit for being a passionate advocate for the elected Commons). Briefly a more radical reformer, Robin Cook, was put in charge. When demoted from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House in 2001, the PM comforted him with the historic challenge of "modernising parliament", including finally reforming the Lords. Within months Blair was cursing Cook's endeavours as a time-wasting calamity. Needless to say reform never happened. Labour's only significant change was the abolition of the hereditary peers and even then the legislation became rather silly. As part of the eternal compromises required in relation to the Lords it was agreed that a few hereditaries kept their places so the proposal became a Pythonesque "Abolition Of Hereditary Peers Except For A Few Of Them Bill".

Once more I can almost touch the determined weariness of those planning to kill off reform. Their weariness is reinforced by some powerful arguments. Governing is hard enough without another obstacle, a more powerful and legitimate second chamber. The Lords in its current form gives a platform to those with great experience of government and yet no longer with egos fuelled by unfulfilled ambition. They have had their day in the sun and can get on with analysing forensically the mountain of proposals rushed out by governments. Indeed there is a neat symmetry. Increasingly governments, from Prime Ministers downwards, are alarmingly inexperienced. The last three PMs, including the present one, had never been a minister in a big spending department. In contrast the Lords is full of former ministers, experts with more depth than current ones.

To take one example, the forensic demolition of the government's health and welfare reforms – from Tony Newton who sadly died recently – took place in the Lords. Newton had served in both Health and Social Security departments during the Thatcher/Major era. His final speeches are worth reading if you want to discover the landmines his inexperienced successors have planted in both policy areas. An elected second chamber would hear few such speeches.

But ultimately the overwhelming case for an elected chamber sweeps such considerations aside. If voters disagree with the criticisms of the health reforms in the Lords they cannot remove the non-elected critics. In contrast, those who agree with the critics in the Lords will have a chance to give their verdict on the Coalition's inexperience at the next election. The Lords' lack of any relationship with the electorate is a bulwark against reckless populism, but the separation from voters cannot be justified in a modern democracy, which is why all three parties claimed to support reform at the last election, although I suspect only Nick Clegg really meant it.

Andrew Adonis makes another powerful argument for urgent reform that I had not heard before. He points out the Lords is becoming absurdly overpopulated as successive governments seek to redress the balance in their favour. I have noticed in recent years that more of my friends are Lords. I now realise why. There are so many it is difficult not to at least bump into one every now and again. Adonis suggests there will soon be more than a thousand. He rightly argues this is making the Lords one of the silliest legislative chambers in the democratic world.

So silly that Clegg is right to press on and his many opponents are being disingenuous in citing specific details for opposing him. Nearly all their opposition is on Machiavellian grounds rather than principle. There is never a "good" time for such reforms. Now is no worse or better than any other. Probably he will not succeed, but to give up now will mean failure for certain. I sense the offer of a referendum on the issue might be a way of keeping the issue alive and blowing the opportunistic cover of Labour's theoretical support for reform, but not this one. In the UK, referendums are rarely held but are often offered. If an offer creates space for reform it is a minor concession, especially as a referendum, if held, is winnable.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

The Jenrick Group: Project Engineer

£33000 - £35000 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Project E...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Technician

£35200 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Engine...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'