A decade ago, Tony Blair half-achieved a historic breakthrough. He took up the Asquith government's unfinished business of House of Lords reform and – well, – half-finished it. By excluding the vast majority of hereditary peers from the Upper House, he did not so much cross the Rubicon as build a bridge across the river and set up camp on it. Over the past 10 years that camp has turned into a permanent settlement, and the unfinished business of 1911 remains unfinished.
It is an arrangement that satisfies no one, except possibly Mr Blair himself. For the halfway house that he bequeathed to Gordon Brown and Jack Straw, the minister responsible for trying to resolve the issue before the election, is in fact closer than it looks to what Mr Blair wanted – once he had worked out what that was – namely a wholly appointed House of Lords.
That is neither the popular nor the right option as a final destination for reform. This newspaper has long argued for a mainly elected second chamber. There is a case for a minority of appointed places, however much Mr Brown has tried to undermine it by his elevation of a television celebrity such as Lord Sugar. In this, we reflect the consensus of the Lower House. When a range of options was put to MPs, the combination of 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed secured the most support; more recently the House of Commons voted, in principle, for an upper house between 80 and 100 per cent elected.
Now Mr Brown and Mr Straw surely have the chance to put that principle into practice. It may be perverse that the MPs' expenses scandal has given an impetus to constitutional reform – it was not the lack of a democratic Upper House that prompted MPs to make indefensible claims for public money – but it is undoubtedly the case. There is a sense abroad that it is time to clean out the whole Augean stables of Britain's parliamentary institutions. And it is also true that the different reforms should be considered together.
Ideally, the make-up of the Upper House ought to be considered alongside that of electoral reform for the House of Commons. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see progress on that front unless Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, should succeed to the premiership before the next election, by which time he will probably have to attend to more pressing matters. All that can be attempted, therefore, is to fulfil the promise of a "more democratic" Upper House on which Labour has been elected three times and to which the Conservative Party is now committed.
This is a matter on which cross-party agreement ought to be possible. The pity is that no leader of vision has been willing to try to make the deal and secure a broad base of public support for it. Mr Straw made some of the right noises in his speech yesterday, but his heart did not really seem to be in it. It is hard to discern the Government's intentions, but it looks as though it either wants to play politics with the issue at the election, using it to try to paint David Cameron as a reactionary, or to send the issue deep into the long, long grass. Or possibly both.
Mr Straw's suggestion that the elected element be phased in by thirds over the three general elections after the next one smacks of a preservation order on a retirement home for a generation of New Labour politicians about to be swept from office. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats should not allow such a self-serving device to succeed.Reuse content