Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, March 1998
All the signs are that the government is set to reject replacement of the House of Lords with a democratically elected second chamber.
Insiders say that the committee chaired by Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine to examine the options for Lords reform – first to find a way of getting rid of the ludicrous archaism of hereditary peers and then to proffer suggestions for a ‘more democratic and representative’ second chamber as promised by the 1997 Labour manifesto – is likely to reject the idea of an elected upper house. Instead, they say, it will back Irvine’s (and Tony Blair’s) preference for a second chamber that is largely appointed.
‘The publicly stated rationale for rejecting democratic elections will be the supposed need for a diverse upper house,’ said a senior Labour peer. ‘In fact, the point of the exercise is simply to preserve the patronage powers of the prime minister.’
Irvine himself has made it clear that he sees a wholly elected second chamber as dangerous. He told an interviewer last month that ‘it’s difficult to see how without a very significant element you can really ensure that the House of Lords is a house of all the talents, and a place at which people enter at a fairly high age’.
But journalists have been slow to latch on to the dominance of his view in his committee – which is largely down to Blair’s strong support for his anti-democratic position.
The argument is by no means over. Labour peers certainly lack democratic legitimacy. But they are hardly a New Labour cabal, as they showed last month by voting to outlaw predatory pricing in the newspaper industry, a measure Blair had promised Rupert Murdoch that Labour would oppose. Many of them remain attached to the principle of a democratically elected second chamber as advocated by Labour before Blair became leader – not least Roy Hattersley, now elevated to the peerage but in past life, as shadow home secretary, the architect of Labour’s 1992 promise of an elected upper house. Even in Irvine’s inner circle there are a few convinced democrats.
But Irvine and Blair have strong support among Labour MPs who reject an elected second chamber on the grounds that it would inevitably reduce the powers of the Commons. And they can count on the backing of most of the press, which rather likes the idea of a second chamber packed with the celebrities it already knows, however they are chosen.
So – rather like proportional representation for the Commons – a democratic second chamber is already looking like a modernisation too far for the Blair government. Unless, of course, we start putting on the pressure right now.