Leading article: An opportunity to complete the reform of a feudal relic

The fact that the House of Lords is not a major national talking point is neither here nor there

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Nick Clegg's draft Bill to replace the House of Lords appears like the Houses of Parliament seen from the opposite end of Westminster Bridge on a foggy morning. The broad shape of the proposed reform is right, but the detail is elusive and a good deal is hazy.

The White Paper proposes to create a second chamber that is entirely, or mostly, elected. The number of members will be reduced to 300, down from the present 800. And these members will serve 15-year terms and be elected under a system of proportional representation. All of this is sensible.

And in theory the legislation should enjoy a trouble-free passage (providing the detail can be nailed down). All three of the main parties promised substantive House of Lords reform in their election manifestos last year. On paper, this is a golden opportunity to complete the great business, begun a century ago, of turning this feudal relic into a fully democratic chamber for revising legislation.

But political theory is very different from political practice. There is already resistance to Mr Clegg's draft Bill from parliamentarians. Some are asserting that this reform will turn the Lords into a chamber of party apparatchiks, with no independence of mind. Others grumble that this is a piece of constitutional tinkering from Mr Clegg that no one in the country cares about or wants.

It is important to rebut these points early on. First, the House of Lords is already stuffed with political apparatchiks. Large stretches of the red benches are dominated by former MPs, not to mention a number of generous party donors. Regular elections will simply make these professional politiians and sugar daddies accountable directly to the public whom they nominally serve. Second, the fact that Lords reform is not a major national talking point is neither here nor there. If this was to be the qualification for Bills to be considered by the House of Commons, very little that MPs now discuss would qualify.

But though Parliamentary resistance has no intellectual justification, it could very easily derail the reform. There is a danger that the Bill will run out of time, especially if the legislation becomes the subject of Lords and Commons ping-pong. Much will depend on whether party leaderships are prepared to use their authority to drive the reform through the Parliamentary meat grinder.

So this is a test for the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. The Labour Party was split on the AV referendum, something that contributed to the major defeat earlier this month. If Lords reform does not happen because Mr Miliband fails to unite his party behind the cause, his claims to be a progressive reformer are going to look pretty threadbare.

But this is a test for David Cameron too. The Prime Minister agreed to put the Conservative party machine at the service of the No campaign in the AV referendum. That campaign then went on to target Mr Clegg personally for the compromises he had made – under urging from Mr Cameron – for the sake of Coalition unity.

That shabby behaviour has soured relations. If Mr Cameron fails to deliver on his clearly stated commitment on Lords reform, trust between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat partners will vanish altogether. And if that were to happen, Liberal Democrats would have very little incentive to co-operate on the legislative reform agenda being pushed by the Conservative side of the Coalition. It is in the real interests of all three political leaders for Lords reform to be delivered. The question now becomes: do Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron grasp this reality?

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