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

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.