Lords vs Commons: 0-0 Draw

February 07, 2003 ,

DEPENDING on who you spoke to, we saw the House of Commons at its worst and at its best this week.

The topic was House of Lords Reform. In front of us were no less than eight different options on how to choose a new second Chamber, ranging from abolition, to appointment, to the radical idea of letting the people choose.

For some this was the Commons at its best, because MPs spoke and voted freely without the constraint of the Party whip.

For others it was the House at its worst, with MPs unable to agree on any of the eight options before us.

I voted for democracy. I have always believed that the people should choose those who govern them and make laws on their behalf.

The second Chamber is a useful check on the power of a government formed in the House of Commons. After all, under our voting system a party can have a big majority in the Commons even though only a minority of voters supported that party in the General Election.

As my old university political sparring partner William Hague said recently,

‘It is possible to govern with authority without having to legislate with impunity.'

Fine words from a member of the Committee of MPs and Lords who came up with all these options. More is the pity that he didn't bother to turn up and vote on the night.

Apart from the no-shows, why did we fail to come up with a reformed second Chamber?

There is nothing new in this. In 1911 the Parliament Act was passed. This restricted the powers of the Lords after they blocked David Lloyd George's ‘People's Budget' which taxed the rich.

It was supposed to be a temporary measure until an elected house could replace what Lloyd George called ‘Mr. Balfour's Poodle.' 92 years later, there are still over 90 hereditary peers, the rest being appointed for life, with none elected.

In the 1960s, Labour encountered the same problem when attempts to democratise the lords were scuppered by one of the oddest alliances in parliamentary history. Michael Foot and Enoch Powell found themselves on the same side for once, and successfully combined to block reform.

The truth is that opposition to democratic reform of the House of Lords is driven by a mixture of principle, fear and self-interest.

Some MPs genuinely believe in a unicameral system. Many countries, such as Israel and Sweden, only have one chamber, and seem to manage quite well.

Other MPs fear that their power and status would be reduced by an elected second Chamber.

In my view, the House of Commons itself has declined in influence, as the power of Prime Ministers has grown under governments of both parties. What we really need is a stronger parliament in both Houses.

Finally, there are a few senior colleagues who may eye the red leather benches of the Lords with a view to a comfortable semi-retirement from politics, and life membership of the best club in London – all expenses paid. No more messy elections to fight and a title to secure the best tables at the best restaurants in town.

In the end, none of this does anything to restore people's faith in politics, politicians and the power of democracy.