Leading Article: The Lords do not need reform - they need abolition

Related Topics
The Lords are back. This week the business of the government of the country - the nation said by its prime minister in his Brighton peroration to be in such dire need of modernisation - is being debated in a chamber where flummery and feudal succession rule the day. Through this winter, important measures intended to prepare Britain for the 2000s will be carried through in a gilded chamber made up, mostly, of Tory has-beens and aristocratic holdovers whose principal recent contributions to public policy have been to seek to delay the sequestration of revolvers and the defence of fox- hunting.

Let's have no nonsense about Bagehot and the dignified elements in the constitution. The House of Lords is an indefensible anachronism. Indeed, Bagehot himself once said that the best antidote to enthusiasm for the Lords was to go and watch it at work. And a little water has passed under Westminster Bridge since he said that. Too much water. Abolition of an hereditary second chamber is today the unduckable test of Labour's genuine commitment to changing this country for the better. Tony Blair declared that David Lloyd George was one of his 20th century heroes. Let's forget that the Welsh wizard ended up a shrunken effigy on the Lords' benches and remember him in 1909 and 1911 - a constitutional reformer of unparalleled energy, unafraid to pit people against the peers.

Yesterday the Labour leader in the Lords (someone who, let's face it, never quite made it in the representative arena) was arguing for "streamlining" the ancient ceremonies of entry to this august chamber. He had a revolutionary proposal. The time it takes a new peer to be introduced should be cut. Novitiates stand, decked out in finery to doff their caps to the Lord Chancellor three times. (Read that and then ask why it is John Wells the satirist who shortly has a book coming out about the Lords.)

The Lord Chancellor, you might think, has better things to do than sit around on a woolsack taking the pro forma greetings of people in ermine - he has a department to run, Cabinet committees to chair, a legal aid system to reform. But no, in modern Britain, Tudor ceremonial takes precedence over business.

It won't do to attempt to breathe a bit of new life into this constitutional corpse, as Labour has done with the creation of a few new (often female) peers. The House of Lords has to go and the sooner the Blair government bites that bullet, the sooner the shape of its first term of office will be settled and critical paths to its priorities for change identified (there ought, for example, to be a clear relationship between the timing of electoral reform and replacement of Parliament's second chamber).

None of the arguments for reform are new. Equally, none of them have lost their urgency or savour. It is not just that aristocracy is anachronistic as a principle for organising government. It's also that they are lesser beasts than before. If the House of Lords had a Burleigh or a Bacon, or a Salisbury or Macmillan, at least we could applaud their style and statecraft. This bunch are very pale, timid and marginal by comparison.

There are two positive arguments for reform. One is representativeness. A chamber with so few women, black people, people of the diversity that is modern Britain is unacceptable. It would not do as a parish council, let alone a governing assembly. If Mr Hague, who has been shilly-shallying recently on Lords reform, does not see that follows from his new age tolerance he is no logician. Mr Blair, in turn, has to be persuaded that he cannot mandate such representativeness. It has to flow out of the process of election and democratic choice (and, yes, he will recognise there a programme for reform of political parties as well). The upper chamber has, in other words, to be an elected body. Labour's desire to move in stages, first removing the rights of hereditary peers, then turning the Lords into an organ of democracy, is too slow. There is a serious danger of never quite getting to the second stage.

The Lords, in short, cannot be democratised but there are versions of a second chamber of Parliament that might work well. The second argument for reform rejects the idea that all political authority should reside in a single chamber, however brilliantly elected. Other jurisdictions, as diverse as Germany and the US, show how a second legislative chamber can include into the political process areas, groups and interests that might otherwise be excluded. The method of election and the exact role of a second chamber are for absorbing debate. But what is to stop Labour declaring its aim, now, and clearly? Not Lords "reform" but abolition. And then the creation of a new second chamber, elected on a reformed voting system but perhaps with longer tenure and specific, subordinate powers. It could even sit in that gilded place. And then, if he is any good, my Lord Cranborne can win a seat fair and square.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own