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Monday, April 23, 2012 

I'm the Prince of Wales, and if all else fails...

It's Monday, it's late April 2012, the coalition's second Queen's speech is fast approaching and I'm freezing my nads off, so it must be time for another attempt at reforming the House of Lords. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, reforming the second chamber of parliament was a simple matter of principle, about how even if we must have a hereditary figurehead, it's bordering on the obscene that our laws are still influenced and changed by the unelected chosen through patronage, those there purely because they quite like God, and those allowed in because 5000 years ago their great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (some actions have been shortened) was a good mate of King Ethelred.

One of the reasons this is no longer the case is that despite all of the above, the Lords has of late done a remarkable job in the circumstances. True, it rarely manages to block bad acts of parliament entirely, although it did in the case of Gordon Brown's attempt to ram 42 days without charge for "terrorist suspects" into law, but as a revising second chamber it stands in the way of governments of all hues putting truly wretched, ill-thought through and downright abominable legislation onto the statute book. Without wanting to sound like a pompous Tory, we really ought to be sure that the reforms we're proposing are for the better and not just going to result in a mirror image of the Commons.

The other key reason is that reforming the Lords gives innumerable opportunities for the main three political parties to do each other over. Having failed to bring in even the alternative vote for the Commons, the Liberal Democrats see Lords reform as something to fall back on, a legacy their voters can genuinely be proud of. Labour, by contrast, sees it as another way to cause the Lib Dems trouble; why else would the party be demanding a referendum, knowing full well this is also exactly what the Tory backbenchers opposed to both reform and the Liberal Democrats getting their way in any form in the coalition are also asking for? Having previously tried to "wrongfoot" David Cameron in the dying days of the third term, Labour has form in this regard. Cameron himself meanwhile, having previously regarded Lords reform as a "third-term issue", is perfectly happy with not ruling out a referendum entirely as the last thing he needs to do is antagonise his backbenchers further.

In keeping with the old traditions then, the slightly altered plans for reform produced by the joint committee are as much of a dog's breakfast as ever. They too agree that the chamber should be 80% elected/20% appointed, a compromise that reminds of Nick Clegg's characterisation of the alternative vote. They too said that those elected should serve terms of 15 years, which is a ridiculously long time, and that they should only be able to serve once, which makes holding those elected to account rather difficult. They only demure from the template drawn up by the coalition in that the chamber should be slightly bigger than they envisaged, with a total of 450 members, which seems more sensible than a bare 300. This means that peers (or senators, or whatever they'll eventually be known as) would be elected under the single transferable vote, meaning that the process for the second chamber will be fairer and more proportional than that for the Commons.

Which does rather suggest that, 20% appointed or not, the supposed revising chamber will have more of a democratic mandate than the Commons currently does. Just as it is absurd that the Lords currently has more members than the Commons, it seems farcical that this could be the constitutional position in just a couple of years time. Except, of course, that just as before there seems to be no chance whatsoever of MPs being able to agree on the subject. Is it any wonder then that so many hold Westminster in such utter contempt?

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