Thursday, February 08, 2007 

A dog's breakfast made of Straw.

"Look, Jacques! That woman's wearing a niqab!"

In a way, having Lords reform back on the political agenda is a good thing. The Lords ought to be a reminder that for all our democratic progress, the second chamber of parliament is still a place where patronage and the hereditary principal still rule the roost, only being slightly less laughable than the hideously protected and overblown monarchy that also still shadows over modern Britain.

It's therefore dispiriting that Labour's latest proposals for reform are so ineffectual and pathetic. Jack Straw, trying not to fall in the trap that befell one of his predecessors' as leader of the house, Robin Cook, has grasped desperately around for compromise but has instead fell on creating a dog's breakfast that is just as likely, if not more, to suffer the same treatment.

Straw's proposal is that the house be 50% elected, 50% appointed; the last of the hereditary peers would go; the remaining appointed members will not be forced out; 30% of the new appointed members will be nominated by political parties, with 20% by a new independent body; the chamber will be slimmed down to 540 members from the current more than 750,
and the bishops will be allowed to stay.

It may be a revolution, but it's going to be a revolution in slow motion.
As the Guardian leader points out, due to the fact that none of the current life peers will be told to get their coat, the natural wastage from deaths means that it's unlikely any at least partial-elections will take place until 2014, with 50% of the chamber not being elected until 2024. Trotsky may have believed in permanent revolution, but New Labour's adaptation seems to be of a revolution which doesn't get started until those in the way of reform have died rather than been overthrown; it's preserving the status quo while pretending to do otherwise.

By calling for just half of the chamber to be elected, Straw has undoubtedly managed to ensure that his reform will be scuppered. The Tories, amazingly enough, have come out in favour of a fully elected second chamber, although if they get in at the next election with a large majority and with no reform having happened, they may well change their minds. In the 21st century, for any house of parliament to not be both democratically accountable and elected by the people is to be contempt of them. For a government that cannot crow enough about how it respects the power of the consumer and their right to choose, whether it be in the public services or elsewhere, to suggest that they cannot be trusted to fully elect a second chamber is,
as this older Grauniad leader argued, risible. It's all well and good to try and reach a compromise, but surely if parliament cannot reach an agreement that says at the very least 75% of the members of the new house must be elected, then it's not worth trying at all.

Leaving 50% of the chamber to be appointed means that political patronage is not going to go away, just that the prime minister himself will no longer be able to create peers. This might prevent a repeat of Wilson's
Lavender List, but instead just gives the same power to political parties, where unless a vote is carried out on their nominations, the current situation will just continue, which will hardly inspire confidence that a repeat of the cash-for-honours inquiry will be an impossibility.

For it is cash-for-honours than now hangs heavily over the whole debate. It was cash-for-honours that re-energised Labour's desire to reform the second chamber, trying to prove that there really was nothing funny, let alone illegal going on, honest guv. For Blair, it's a chance to point to something else in his wider legacy. Look, at least I got some sort of reform through, that's got to be worth something, right? Unless he's changed his mind in the intervening 3 and a bit years, then Blair still doesn't really want a hybrid chamber at all;
last time he was in favour of a fully appointed house, leaving Robin Cook on his own to put forward the case for at least some proportion to be elected. In the event, MPs rejected all the options. This is what Straw wants to avoid this time round, but with such woefully unambitious plans, perhaps this is why Blair seems to be supporting them; he wants history to be repeated.

The way around this is that if MPs again fail to decide on any reform, and reject Straw's attempts for them to back a preferential system of voting that at least gets some reform voted through, is for the options instead to be put to the nation in a referendum. Seeing as the Lords themselves are unlikely to resemble turkeys voting for Christmas, and that Labour's manifesto isn't strong enough to force through reform via the parliament act, what better way would there for the argument to be settled once and for all than through the ballot box? Sure, the turnout will probably be low unless it's done on the same day as the next general election, and we all know how the wider public loves debating the intricacies of the reforming of the House of Lords, but at least it would give some wider legitimacy to whichever reform is decided upon, rather than leaving it to the whims of our elected representatives, who are unlikely to take on board the views of their constituents on such a matter. It would be next to impossible to make a bigger mess of it than Straw has.

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