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Thursday, March 08, 2007 

The house of dead men walking.

Last night's vote on the reform of the House of Lords was one of those rare occasions that makes you believe in democracy again. For the first time ever, even with some MPs who oppose election voting tactically, the Lords will have to heed the message that their days are numbered, so overwhelming was the majority in favour of patronage being thrown into the dustbin of history. What made it so surprising was the numbers involved: last time round the 80% elected and 20% appointed option was defeated by 3 votes. This time it succeeded by 38.

The reasons dreamt up by some of the dinosaurs for voting against were comical. Frank Dobson, who ought to know better, claimed that two elected chambers would be in perpetual combat with each other, even though this government's legislation first and thought later approach has meant that the Lords has never been so rebellious. The example of other countries shows that two elected chambers are more than capable of working together. Lord Lipsey, who previously argued against Helena Kennedy on Newsnight on the subject in the most pompous fashion imaginable, made up some figures which claimed that changes to House of Lords would mean it would cost £1bn, ten times the current cost. Even if his figures are correct, it's small change when it comes to establishing once and for all the democratic principle in our legislature. Gerald Howarth was at least honest in his opposition: he noted how the removal of the hereditary peers would undermine the monarchy, leaving it the only post in modern Britain filled in such a way. Personally I can think of nothing more uplifting than finally moving close to getting rid of the whole worthless, inbred lot of them.

There is of course yet a lot to be to decided about just how an elected Lords would work. The last thing that must be allowed to happen is for it to continue as it is, with those who have grown too old for the Commons being putting on lists which make certain their return to a position of power, reformed chamber or not. Straw's original plans were an utter dog's breakfast, and he's going to have to come up with something far removed from that if it's going to get even close to being implemented. If the bishops think they're still going to be able to continue to vote on approving legislation for no good reason, they should have to stand for election like everyone else. In fact, that should be the ultimate challenge to all those members of the Lords who oppose the changes: if you're so certain that you're providing a good service doing what you currently are, then you should present your case to the electorate and let them decide on it.

For now though, the majority of MPs can for once feel proud of themselves. If nothing else, we can take delight in the fact that Blair's favoured option, Straw's 50-50 proposal, was the one that was most heavily defeated, and deservedly so. Not only that, but no longer will governments be able to appoint their ennobled house-pets from the Lords to be government ministers. Lord Drayson, the most egregious example in recent memory, will be rightfully kicked out, and hopefully not before too long.


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