Leading article: Why Labour should send the lords a'leaping

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When Jeffrey Archer appears to be more radical than the Labour Party, something is wrong. The Conservative peer and novelist makes a modest proposal to end sex discrimination in the succession to the throne. Labour seems sympathetic, but is not eager to start any royal hares running.

As Lord Archer pointed out yesterday, his proposed Bill would make no difference in practice for 50 or 60 years, because the Queen's oldest child is male, as in turn is his. Only if Prince William had a daughter would the royal revolution occur. Such is Tory radicalism, to which new Labour pays court.

To be fair to Lord Archer, he is more consistent than that, and therefore more revolutionary. Because to challenge the principle of male primogeniture in the Royal Family is to question the basis of membership of his own club, the House of Lords.

It should hardly need stating, 20 years after the Sex Discrimination Act, that the privilege of the eldest male is an anachronism which should have no role in any part of our lives. It would be interesting, after the recent bellicose noises from Tory hereditary peers, to see whether the Tory party really does try to defend the right to influence the nation's affairs of the eldest sons of male descendants of someone who stitched up some deal for a long-dead king or queen. One only has to imagine The Sun's campaign to save the hereditaries to realise the absurdity of the idea.

That did not stop Lord Cranborne, Tory leader in the Lords and heir to Lord Burghley (who did a few deals for Elizabeth I) saying last week that it was "helpful" to have in Parliament a "body chosen by lot". Some lot, in which women's numbers are automatically unlikely to come up. The House of Lords has 1,200 members, slightly more than half of whom are hereditary peers. Of the 86 women, only 16 are hereditaries.

It is not just the sexual bias, although this is often forgotten in the guff about the "quality" of debates in the Upper House. Even if Lord Archer's Bill were extended to the peerage, so that women had an equal chance to inherit a seat in the House of Lords, this ought to be unacceptable in any country that calls itself a democracy. Let it never be forgotten that it was the votes of the hereditary peers which gave us the poll tax.

Labour is absolutely right to abolish the voting and speaking rights of hereditary peers. And if Labour wins the election and the hereditary peers try to thwart the change, they should be swept away. The declaration last week by Lord Irvine, who would be Tony Blair's Lord Chancellor, that in the case of obstruction Labour would have to look at "every weapon at its disposal" was refreshing. As he said in his New Statesman interview, "the time for the abolition of the hereditaries has come".

It is one of the niggling worries about Mr Blair, however, that he fails to stand on the high ground of constitutional reform with the same confidence and aggression that he displays in other fields. The abolition of a hereditary House of Lords would be a great radical change, which could have far-reaching effects on British politics in the long term. It would be popular, and it has no public spending implications. Likewise the referendums in Scotland, Wales and London on how they should be governed, on electoral reform and on the single European currency. They have so far appeared to be defensive politics rather than a new politics in which the watchword is "let the people decide".

In last week's interview, Lord Irvine also justified the proposed referendum in Scotland purely in terms of the impetus it would give to driving the Bill to set up a Scottish parliament through Westminster, rather than as a good thing in itself. He and Mr Blair have approached the task of pruning, shaping and prioritising Labour's programme of constitutional reform with laudable scepticism and pragmatism. The decision on the devolution referendums may have "come too late", as Lord Irvine disarmingly admitted. But it was the right decision, and now Labour has a solid list of achievable first steps. Reform of the Lords. Devolution. A Freedom of Information Act. Incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. A referendum on the voting system. It has rightly been said that this package is Mr Blair's inheritance, rather than his passion. And there is much that has been put off until another day, including the ultimate make-up of a democratic second chamber of parliament. But the package could still be turned into a positive virtue for the Labour Party; at the very least, Mr Blair must not resile.

There has been much talk of the difficulty of getting such an ambitious raft of legislation through Parliament, and how it would distract an incoming Labour government from immediate bread-and-butter issues. This is no longer true, because many of the Bills will be short, with more complex issues deferred. But the key to the whole programme of democratic reform is the clearing out of the hereditaries from Parliament. If they are not dealt with, they would become the principal obstacle to progress on other fronts. Devolution law was grievously delayed by the House of Lords during the last Labour government, but this time peers would want to engage in nitpicking arguments about human rights law and the rest as well.

So Lord Irvine was quite right to threaten to flood the Upper House with new life peers if necessary to push the Reform of the Lords Bill through. It would be quite possible to create 350 peers on a dull Monday in November next year and have the Bill through by February, after which they could all resign. There would be no shortage of volunteers for a few months of such noble public service. If it would assist the Labour leadership, The Independent would be happy to offer short-term life peerage commissions as prizes for its readers. You would scramble for the opportunity, wouldn't you?

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