Leading Article: Labour under peer pressure

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The Independent Online
NO ONE pretends that Tony Blair's government is socialist, attached to the working-class Labour movement, or even "of the left". Philip Gould, one of the Prime Minister's closest advisers, has just said that New Labour's politics must be "rooted in populism, but particularly rooted in the emerging middle class". Another Blairite commentator says that Mr Blair's genius is to have given those middle classes a way of voting selfishly with a clear conscience. And a columnist in yesterday's New York Times said that the Prime Minister is actually further to the right than his immediate predecessor.

But New Labour does have a radical mission, say its advocates. It may not be much concerned with securing for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry; it is, nevertheless, committed to reforming the antique and obsolete British constitution, to throwing "Ukania" on the dustheap of history, to giving this country proper modern constitutional arrangements. This is beguiling if true; but is it?

Look at last week's debates in and about the House of Lords. It is now well-nigh impossible to defend any kind of hereditary legislature, and the attempts to do so by Tory peers and Tory papers give their game away by their sheer facetiousness. Margaret Jay, the leader of the House of Lords, was right to say that ending the hereditary peers' voting rights was an unambiguous electoral commitment, endorsed by the nation last year.

But the Government has now feebly kicked the ball into touch by setting up a royal commission. If New Labour were as serious about radical constitutional reform as it is supposed to be, it would not merely be putting through what is after all a purely negative change, albeit justified, but would have a positive policy to advocate.

It is the same on every constitutional front. At heart, the Prime Minister is as personally conservative on matters constitutional as on most others. Any commitment he has to electoral reform - and that doesn't seem to be saying much - follows from his political aim of forming a centrist coalition which would include the Liberal Democrats: PR may be accepted as a way of buying Paddy Ashdown's support, but not on its merits. Mr Blair is, if anything, even less personally enthusiastic about devolution, as his wonderfully crushing comparison of the Edinburgh assembly with an English parish council showed. The truth is that Labour has been a late and insincere convert to that cause, inspired only by yet another political calculation - the need to ward off the Scottish Nationalist Party threat to Labour's four dozen rotten boroughs north of the Tweed.

In other words, the closer you look at the Government's vaunted constitutional reforms, the more half-hearted and half-baked they seem. Ending the voting right of the Duke of Omnium is a "free-standing reform", we're told. But a party which genuinely wanted to overhaul the constitution would have told us what it wants as well as what it doesn't want. Does Parliament need a second chamber at all? In our view, the answer is yes, both for the purpose of revising legislation and for acting as some check on a government elected, after all, by the votes of less than a third of voters.

Can it function honestly, even for an interim period of several years, as "Mr Blair's poodle", the largest quango in the land? No: nothing - not even an hereditary upper house - could be better designed to bring the idea of a second chamber into disrepute. Should it be replaced as soon as possible by one constituted on another basis? Yes. What should that basis be? Since there's much to be said for either an elective second chamber, or for one appointed by an independent commission free of political pressure, the best answer would be a combination of the two.

At any rate, a positive answer must be found. The Government defeats itself with its own argument: the more important constitutional reform is, the more essential it is that such reform should be thought out. We cannot have a new constitution made up as we go along.