Reform of the House of Lords has always been a quagmire. That is because a number of self-evident truths about the second chamber are in tension. The first is that, in a democracy, laws should be framed, on the whole, by legislators we can sack when they get it wrong. That is why the hereditary principle was repugnant, as is the present system of a wholly-appointed House of Lords. The second is that we don't want a system which builds in clashes of legitimacy. So the second chamber must not replicate the function or the powers of the first; to do that would institutionalise paralysis. And the third is that we want senators who will go some way towards restoring public faith in a political process that has been tainted by patronage and cronyism.
Jack Straw's proposals yesterday will allow MPs to pick a path through that quagmire, providing they make the right choices. But he is right to insist that MPs must rank their reform preferences in order to ensure that a solution is found. Complaints that preferential voting is a "dangerous precedent" are part of the problem of British parliament antiquarianism. The deadlock of 2003 must be avoided.
First, MPs will be asked whether there should be a second chamber at all. They should vote "yes". We need better technical revision and scrutiny of legislation. But we also must be able to stop governments with big majorities rushing through opportunistic or foolish laws. An upper house is needed to check and balance the excesses of the Commons. Next, they will be asked whether further reform is necessary. Again, the answer must be "yes", for the present half-way House of Lords is the least preferable option. An all-appointed chamber was rejected overwhelmingly by MPs 18 months ago, and since then repeated instances of "Tony's cronyism", and now the cash-for-peerages row, must have damaged beyond recovery faith in appointments.
Of the options then available to MPs, ideally we would like to see a fully elected chamber. Most likely, however, is 80 per cent of members elected and 20 per cent appointed by an independent commission. This was the reform which MPs last time came closest to endorsing - it was lost by only three votes. Failing that, a 60 per cent elected house is the only option that ought to be acceptable in a 21st-century democracy.
That said, the details of Mr Straw's proposals have much to commend them. We will see the first elections to Parliament's second chamber, but in a way that will avoid a clash of authorities. Because senators will be elected for non-renewable terms, they will not be beholden to the party whips. Because they are elected for longer periods, they will provide stability, and yet because the composition of the whole house will change by only one third at each election, its claim to represent the electorate will always be weaker than that of the Commons. A minority of appointed members will maintain a distinction between the chambers in representational authority. Senators appointed by an independent commission will serve another function. They will constitute a group outside the reach of the prime minister of the day, who will no longer be allowed to offer peerages to gnarled backbenchers whose seats he wants for some new Westminster wonder boy or girl. Appointed members will inject a maverick dimension to the house, and take account of all the arguments about excluding judges, bishops and others with special expertise or perspectives.
One thing is clear. If the aim is to increase the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Lords, and make it better reflect the diversity of the UK, then all the options before MPs are better than the status quo. The default position is the worst possible on offer.