Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 May 2002

I WAS going to write this week on the depressing business of Richard Desmond’s £100,000 donation to the Labour Party a few days before the government gave the green light to his takeover of the Daily Express and Sunday Express. Whatever next, I thought gloomily – Labour Party women’s conference sponsored by Readers’ Wives? Or maybe even a place in the House of Lords for the pornographer tycoon. Lord Beavershot does have a certain ring to it, and it fits the man perfectly. (If you don’t get the joke, I’m not going to explain it here.)

But then along came Robin Cook with his announcement that the government had torn up its plans for a largely appointed second chamber and that it was going to let parliament decide the composition of the new upper house. We were treated to the glorious spectacle of that pompous chump Derry Irvine, Lord Chancellor and chief architect of the Government’s now-abandoned scheme, having his nose vigorously rubbed in the ordure by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before we get what we deserve – and what should have been the Government’s goal from the beginning – a democratically legitimate second chamber. A joint committee of the Commons and the Lords has to come up with options for reform that will be put to a free vote of our elected and unelected representatives – and then it has to put together detailed proposals.

Cook’s optimism this that the process can be completed well before the next election, which is likely in 2005, could well be misplaced. There is a strong possibility that the forces of conservatism (Irvine, John Prescott and the majority of peers) could scupper the project by stalling it, even though they seem unlikely to be able to muster a majority against a largely elected second chamber.

Nevertheless, the abandonment of Irvine’s half-baked plan for reform is cause for some celebration among democrats. Along with the launch last week of the Government’s blueprint for English regional assemblies, it gives at least a glimmer of hope to those of us who feared that Labour had given up on the idea of democratically reforming Britain’s creaking constitution.

It is rather strange that Prescott, who has been Labour’s leading advocate of a wholly appointed second chamber on the grounds that anything else would undermine the Commons, is also the party’s most enthusiastic devolutionist. The whole point of devolution to decentralise power, one upshot of which is inevitably a reduction of the role of the Commons in certain key areas of policy.

But let that pass. For a change, the government is doing the right thing. With a fair wind – and a period of silence on Prescott’s and Irvine’s part on Lords reform – we could see two radical democratic reforms in the next five years that would transform Britain’s polity for the better.


On a different subject, I hope the editor won’t mind me saying that the news of the revival of the Tribune Group in the Parliamentary Labour Party left me unenthusiastic. I’ve nothing against the MPs who have relaunched the group. Indeed, I’d agree that the PLP needs a Left-leaning pressure group that is less oppositionist than the Socialist Campaign Group.

The problem is the name – which the original group took from this organ back in 1966. No one at the time saw it as an act of larceny (because it wasn’t one), and during the 1960s and early 1970s relations between the group and the paper were mostly cordial and constructive.

But the closeness of the relationship also caused difficulties even then, particularly for the paper. Its identification with the ageing traditional Left of the PLP meant that it never really benefited from the upsurge in radical Leftism in the 1960s and 1970s among the young, who saw Tribune as old-fashioned and dull. In the 1980s, with the split between the Tribune and Campaign Groups and the former’s gradual drift into leadership-loyalism and inactivity, the relationship between group and paper fell apart. Peter Hain and others made a brief attempt to revive the group as a debating forum in the early 1990s, but were soon ousted by the leadership loyalists. After about 1994, the group lived on in name only. Few regretted its de facto passing.

Now, it could be that it all works much better this time, but I have a suspicion it won’t, for the simple reason that a weekly newspaper and a parliamentary pressure group need to operate by completely different rules. The paper has to provide a lively, up-to-date, well-written commentary on events and trends. The parliamentary group needs to lobby patiently for legislative change. Mixing the two is not a good idea. It would have been better for everyone if the new Tribune Group had found another name.

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