Steve Richards: The Lords is undemocratic and increasingly silly

Clegg is right to push on. Nearly all opposition is on Machiavellian grounds rather than principle

Steve Richards
Monday 23 April 2012 23:23 BST

Constitutional reforms happen only when they are in the self-interest of those with the power to make them. A leader who instigates a constitutional reform not in the interests of his or her party is a noble human being – and a very poor leader. The problem with House of Lords reform is that party advantage is almost impossible to measure, at least for the two bigger parties. As a result nothing very much changes, even though the major parties are theoretically committed to reform. After much huffing and puffing they tend to opt for the relative safety of the status quo.

There was so much of it in the New Labour era I feel exhausted already merely thinking about another huff and puff. There were at least two theoretical attempts under Tony Blair, and a further one under Gordon Brown. A lot of the time Jack Straw had the unofficial title of Minister for Constitutional Reform Without Introducing Very Much Reform (although he deserves much credit for being a passionate advocate for the elected Commons). Briefly a more radical reformer, Robin Cook, was put in charge. When demoted from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House in 2001, the PM comforted him with the historic challenge of "modernising parliament", including finally reforming the Lords. Within months Blair was cursing Cook's endeavours as a time-wasting calamity. Needless to say reform never happened. Labour's only significant change was the abolition of the hereditary peers and even then the legislation became rather silly. As part of the eternal compromises required in relation to the Lords it was agreed that a few hereditaries kept their places so the proposal became a Pythonesque "Abolition Of Hereditary Peers Except For A Few Of Them Bill".

Once more I can almost touch the determined weariness of those planning to kill off reform. Their weariness is reinforced by some powerful arguments. Governing is hard enough without another obstacle, a more powerful and legitimate second chamber. The Lords in its current form gives a platform to those with great experience of government and yet no longer with egos fuelled by unfulfilled ambition. They have had their day in the sun and can get on with analysing forensically the mountain of proposals rushed out by governments. Indeed there is a neat symmetry. Increasingly governments, from Prime Ministers downwards, are alarmingly inexperienced. The last three PMs, including the present one, had never been a minister in a big spending department. In contrast the Lords is full of former ministers, experts with more depth than current ones.

To take one example, the forensic demolition of the government's health and welfare reforms – from Tony Newton who sadly died recently – took place in the Lords. Newton had served in both Health and Social Security departments during the Thatcher/Major era. His final speeches are worth reading if you want to discover the landmines his inexperienced successors have planted in both policy areas. An elected second chamber would hear few such speeches.

But ultimately the overwhelming case for an elected chamber sweeps such considerations aside. If voters disagree with the criticisms of the health reforms in the Lords they cannot remove the non-elected critics. In contrast, those who agree with the critics in the Lords will have a chance to give their verdict on the Coalition's inexperience at the next election. The Lords' lack of any relationship with the electorate is a bulwark against reckless populism, but the separation from voters cannot be justified in a modern democracy, which is why all three parties claimed to support reform at the last election, although I suspect only Nick Clegg really meant it.

Andrew Adonis makes another powerful argument for urgent reform that I had not heard before. He points out the Lords is becoming absurdly overpopulated as successive governments seek to redress the balance in their favour. I have noticed in recent years that more of my friends are Lords. I now realise why. There are so many it is difficult not to at least bump into one every now and again. Adonis suggests there will soon be more than a thousand. He rightly argues this is making the Lords one of the silliest legislative chambers in the democratic world.

So silly that Clegg is right to press on and his many opponents are being disingenuous in citing specific details for opposing him. Nearly all their opposition is on Machiavellian grounds rather than principle. There is never a "good" time for such reforms. Now is no worse or better than any other. Probably he will not succeed, but to give up now will mean failure for certain. I sense the offer of a referendum on the issue might be a way of keeping the issue alive and blowing the opportunistic cover of Labour's theoretical support for reform, but not this one. In the UK, referendums are rarely held but are often offered. If an offer creates space for reform it is a minor concession, especially as a referendum, if held, is winnable.

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