LEADING ARTICLE : Ermine in the gloaming

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For 20 years Britain has been undergoing the pains of modernisation. State monopolies, union barons, a top-heavy civil service - all have felt the reformers' lash. Yet government itself has remained unscathed. Most extraordinary of all, that constitutional relic, the House of Lords, stands completely unaltered.

And what an anachronism it is; 1,200 members - consisting of 800 hereditary peers (of whom 30 or so are women), 26 bishops and archbishops, 33 Law Lords and some 400 appointed life peers, the vast majority of whom are Conservatives.

How odd that so little should have changed when so much is wrong. An effective second chamber should be providing a check on the government and safeguarding the rights of the citizen from abuse. Yet today the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons exercises a power almost as absolute as that of any ancient Emperor. He or she appoints the government, proposes legislation, appoints public figures and runs the administration. There is little to restrain this elective dictatorship. This makes for inefficient and unaccountable government - and there is not much that a chamber dominated by unelected members, sitting by right of birth, can do about it.

The Labour Party claims an intention to reform Parliament and may soon have a chance to act. Last year Mr Blair promised action on the House of Lords, but so far all we have are some hints and a working party. With Labour already committed to a Freedom of Information Act, devolution and a Bill of Rights, there are broad hints being dropped that even the most ardent Muswell Hill obsessive at a Charter 88 sign-a-statement party ought now to be satisfied.

The fact is that Labour has little idea what to do about the second chamber. It does not know whether it should be elected or appointed, powerful or marginal, representative or technocratic. And it does not have long to decide.

It is tricky. Reform of the second chamber cannot happen in isolation - it would have to be linked to changes in the Commons. But there are principles to such a reform that can guide Labour's policy makers. Clearly the anachronism of hereditary membership should be abolished. Further there should be some kind of direct connection between the electorate and the second chamber, otherwise it will lack legitimacy. That does not mean, however, that all members of the Upper House must be elected - there is real value in providing a forum for those who do not wish to be caught up in the business of elective politics. So a system of appointing specialists or talented technocrats could be devised, with the list of names and reasons for appointment open to public inspection.

Nor need this be done all at once. Too often the best drives out the good, because of the difficulty in achieving sudden, total change. So progress could be incremental, the result of setting out a long-term strategy and pursuing it gradually but persistently. A new government could begin by freezing out hereditary peers and bringing in MEPs to sit ex officio, with particular responsibilities for looking at Euro legislation.

Change is long overdue. Britain badly needs better government. A second chamber that is varied in membership, imaginative in thought and innovative in action would help achieve such improvement. In many ways the contribution of Tony Blair has been to force Labour into an acceptance of radical change that has already happened. His own mission should now be to transcend what has been done - and drag government into the 21st century.