Leading article: A chance in a generation to modernise the Lords

 

Tuesday 28 February 2012 01:00
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As the growing consensus would have it, Nick Clegg's determination to reform the House of Lords is ill-advised at every level.

His proposals are deeply unpopular at Westminster. They could tie up valuable parliamentary time for anything up to two years. Most important of all, they threaten to expend what little political capital the Liberal Democrats have left on an issue in which voters have no interest and where success is far from guaranteed. The Deputy Prime Minister is at best doggedly unrealistic, at worst downright daft.

Such criticisms may be easy to make. But they are inexcusably narrow. Neither is the party political explanation enough. Mr Clegg's efforts may indeed soothe mutinous Liberal Democrat activists smarting from the compromises of coalition. But that would hardly be sufficient benefit to warrant such an uphill climb as constitutional reform. In fact, it is that sad rarity: a matter of genuine belief. Whether or not it is a vote-winner is irrelevant. With liberals in government for the first time since the war, Mr Clegg is resolved to make best use of the chance to conclude – finally – more than 100 years of attempts at reform.

Not only is the Deputy Prime Minister to be applauded for sticking to his guns. He is also absolutely right on the substance. If Lords reform is not an issue which grabs the public imagination, it should be. That there are still 90 peers voting on British laws on the basis of birth alone is an inexcusable anachronism that stands in direct contradiction to our claims of democracy. That attempts to remedy the situation have been batted back and forth for more than a century is testament to the sclerotic power of vested interests shamelessly unwilling to vote down their arbitrary privileges. The sooner such outdated arrangements are brought to an end, the better.

That said, Mr Clegg will have to work hard to sidestep opponents' attempts to portray him as an obsessive tinkering with arcane constitutional issues while the real concerns of voters are addressed elsewhere. There is evidence the Deputy Prime Minister is aware of the danger. But it will take more than one outspoken call for George Osborne to raise the income tax threshold to allay it.

The biggest risk of all, however, is simply that the attempt at reform fails. Here, at least, the lack of public interest – while undeserved – may have an upside. After the loss of last year's referendum on the alternative vote, it would certainly be embarrassing for another cherished Liberal Democrat ambition to founder. But embarrassment is more manageable than the fall-out from higher-profile issues, such as tuition fees.

Mr Clegg's greatest gamble is on the support of his Conservative Coalition partners. Even if the Bill is passed by MPs – which is far from certain – the Lords are almost certain to block it. To force the Bill through will then require recourse to the Parliament Act: a commitment of political will and parliamentary time only possible with full-throated Conservative support. Such backing may be obligated by the Coalition Agreement. But the precedents are far from encouraging, given that a similar deal over campaigning on AV collapsed in acrimony. It can only be hoped that the Tories act in better faith this time around.

Risky or not, reform of the House of Lords is too important to ignore. Critics may claim that peers' recalcitrance over welfare and the NHS is only the most recent proof of the efficacy of existing arrangements. But they are overlooking the fundamental principle that it is unacceptable for government to be conducted at the whim of either birth or appointment. Mr Clegg is entirely correct in his assessment that he has a chance in a generation. He deserves all possible support to make the most of it.

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