Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 24 January 2003
I learned long ago to treat anything I read in the Sunday Times as suspect in the extreme, but its story last weekend that most of the Cabinet had decided to support a wholly appointed second chamber as its preferred option for the next stage of House of Lords reform had a horrible whiff of veracity.
The paper reported a “highly placed source” saying that Tony Blair, John Prescott, Jack Straw and John Reid have all lined up behind “a chamber appointed by a commission with representatives from the regions, professional bodies, business, charities and retired members of the military”. It went on to quote “a senior MP close to the debate” who said that the feeling was that “an elected chamber would challenge the supremacy of the Commons and be a bulwark for electoral dissent because it would be elected mid-term. We could end up with opposing houses like the US Congress.”
This story could of course be baloney. The reason that the Government set up the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform last summer was the widespread fury among MPs at the lack of democratic legitimacy of Lord Irvine’s recommendation of an 80 per cent appointed, 20 per cent elected second chamber. In the circumstances, it seems on first sight just a little strange if some of the most senior members of the Government are now leaning towards an option that is even less democratic.
Moreover, when the committee issued its report last month, all the newspapers quoted “senior sources” saying that the most likely of the seven options it outlined to be adopted was a part-elected, part-appointed second chamber – either 60-40, 40-60 or 50-50.
But there are good reasons to suspect that the Sunday Times story is accurate. The Commons and Lords will have free votes on Lords reform early next month – and there is widespread support among MPs for a largely elected second chamber. Given that no one now backs Lord Irvine’s 80-20 appointed-elected option, the options for Government opponents of election of a majority of peers are limited. The choice is essentially between voting for 60 per cent appointed, 40 per cent elected, which has little support in either the Commons or the Lords – or backing a wholly appointed second chamber, the option backed by a large swathe of Tory peers. Given that they have always been implacably against election of any but a small minority of peers, it would not be too surprising if Blair, Prescott, Straw and company have indeed decided to go for the latter.
That it would not be too surprising does not, however, make it in any way defensible. The reason for making the Lords wholly elected or – second best -- at least largely elected is simple and compelling: it is only through election that a legislature in a democracy can be considered legitimate. An appointed chamber is an anti-democratic outrage, and the defenders of an appointed chamber in the current Lords are self-interested reactionaries. Without exception the arguments put up against election are entirely spurious.
An elected upper house need not undermine the authority or primacy of the lower house: legislation outlining their respective powers can see to that. Nor need an elected upper house necessarily be packed with superannuated politicians to the exclusion of anyone else: if the parties really want non-party people in the Lords, they can agree to stand down in certain seats to give independents a free run.
What an elected second chamber would be able to do, as an appointed one cannot now and could not if it were chosen by some independent committee of the great and good, is hold the executive to account – and it is this, rather than any concern for the primacy of the Commons, that is the real reason that many members of the Government are horrified at the prospect. They want a toothless House of Lords – a seraglio of eunuchs, in the memorable phrase of Michael Foot last time a Labour government tried to introduce a wholly appointed second chamber – because it makes for an easier life.
If next month they manage to sabotage the prospects of democratic reform of the Lords, they will throw away the best chance any government has ever had to rid Britain of a relic of feudalism that no other democracy in the world would tolerate. And they will deserve nothing but contempt from democrats of every political tendency.