Paradoxes and circles. Can new Labour succeed where Churchill failed and solve one of the great intractable problems of British politics?

Unfinished Business: Reforming the House of Lords

Ivor Richard and Damien Welfare <em>Vintage, 226

Here is a millennium challenge for new Labour. Can Tony Blair succeed where Winston Churchill failed? I refer not to fascist aggression and the danger of a wider European conflict but to the long-running saga of the House of Lords.

In British politics, constitutional issues run like London buses. Before the first world war, women's rights, Home Rule and the Upper House all bunched together, hastening the strange death of Liberal England. Then for a few generations, nothing. Now we have them again, with their lordships in some ways the hardest to handle, partly because liberal opinion never knows where it stands.

The young Churchill declared in 1910 that a "system whereby important and peculiar political privileges are to be transmitted from father to son to the remote end of time, to be enjoyed and exercised irrespective of merits, the intelligences, or the character of the descendants, and utterly regardless of the wishes of their fellow subjects, is in my judgement not a system which can be left untouched in any scheme of democratic policy". Eighty-seven years later the essential problem remained untackled. Hence Blair's 1997 commitment: "As an initial self-contained reform . . . the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage [my italics] in the process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative."

Churchill's words were blather. What of Tony's? Will Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission lead us, after all these years, to a second stage? With signs of the manifesto promise fraying at the edges, the historically minded observer may be permitted a sense of deja vu. Given the capacity of this particular issue to crop up every few decades, tie politicians in knots, recede, then climb back up the checklist of undealt-with priorities, it would be foolhardy to predict that some form of the Lords question will not be debated in the New Statesman 80 or 100 years hence - a constitutional rogue elephant, on which political consensus and hence public legitimacy is somehow always lacking. However, some remedies may be better than others. This admirably lucid book by a former leader of the Upper House and a Lords expert - a vigorous Baedeker's guide to existing practice and the available options - goes far towards sorting the wheat from the chaff, while pushing its own point of view.

Enough puzzles and conundrums for Lord Wakeham emerge to make his task appear a distinctly unenviable one: indeed, the overriding impression is of paradoxes and unsquareable circles. The first paradox is that for all Churchill's round and unanswerable condemnation, we are talking about Lords reform because the Lords are worth reforming. Indeed, what we are discussing is not (as in 1910-11) how to cut an overweening body down to size, but how to make sense of a useful body in order to preserve it. The second paradox - or danger - is that the very act of reform may provide it with an unacceptable strength and therefore give rise to an Upper House problem in a new form. The third is that, while everybody agrees that an aristocratic House is an anachronism, nobody knows what would be better, and there are no agreed criteria for judging the question.

The economic historian Professor Sidney Pollard once observed that the Labour Party, throughout its early history, had been consistently hostile to the banks and frequently in favour of nationalising them. The trouble was, the reasons it gave for doing so varied, and often cancelled one another out. Much the same could be said of the debate over Lords reform or abolition. When people talk about the good features of the Lords, they often only have the vaguest idea what they mean. So while Labour sees it as a plus that the Lords stood up to Margaret Thatcher, Conservatives do not necessarily count it as a minus that it has always had a built-in Tory majority. This little difference helps to explain why the bursts of reforming zeal in 1911, 1948 and 1968 have always come under governments of the left, and why - although most Tories agreed in principle with Labour's proposals as long ago as the 1960s - Lords reform somehow never moved on to the Thatcher-Major agenda. Nevertheless - the biggest irony - it was a Conservative premier, Harold Macmillan, who in 1958 introduced life peerages, the change that has done more to alter the shape and repute of the Upper House than any other measure.

It has been because life peerages breathed new life into an increasingly moribund chamber and softened its worst anomaly that the "unfinished business of 1911", as the authors call it, has lingered. Richard and Welfare offer a persuasive case for bringing this business to a close. Writing with the perspective of people immersed in Lords affairs, they come perilously close to talking up the House's importance. And there, unfortunately, is the rub.

While the authors draw attention to the government's manifesto commitment not to alter the House's powers, they also argue or imply that it might do just that. They are aware that a more sensible House would be a more legitimate one, but they never quite face up to the implications: namely, the dilemma all Lords reformers have been forced up against, that to reform means an improved and enhanced constitutional role, unless you simultaneously take other steps to downgrade it.

Appealing to public opinion (which favours a democratised chamber) gets us little further, partly because the public doesn't care that much, and partly because very few people have the faintest idea what it actually does. Richard and Welfare remind us just how much detailed, useful work the Lords does in scrutinising legislation and examining policy; most people, however, probably think of it as a chamber where tweedy types get red-faced about fishing rights. If it has a function, it is surely as a more independent-minded and courageous debating forum than the Commons - a naming-and-shaming body - and as a constitutional long-stop. The calls for it to be democratised are justified on the grounds that it has residual power.

What is the answer? I recall that Lord Plant's committee, in the Kinnock-Smith era, was almost unanimously in favour of a wholly elected chamber. I was the sole doubter. Richard and Welfare plump for a hybrid, two-thirds directly elected, one-third nominated - pointing out that it is the approach put forward by a committee chaired by Lord (14th Earl) Home in 1978. It also happens (though the authors do not mention it) to be close to Winston Churchill's favourite remedy in 1919; Churchill proposed a House of 150 members of whom 100 would be elected by large constituencies, with the remaining 50 co-opted in strict proportion to party strengths. Some version of this mix has much to recommend it: there would be a sizable gesture in the direction of democracy, while the appointed element would keep the Upper House as a dumping ground for superannuated ministers and for non-elected experts.

If wholly elected is one approach and hybridity another, wholly nominated - the Canadian system - is an obvious third. Richard and Welfare dismiss this on the grounds that it flouts a manifesto commitment. Big constitutional changes, however, should not be subservient to anybody's mandate, and the "nominations only" model has several advantages, while some of the criticisms are misplaced. In particular, the "biggest quango in the land" jibe would be off target if appointment to the revised House was not exclusively based on prime ministerial patronage.

This happens to be essentially the system advocated by Harold Wilson in 1968, and talked out in the Commons by an unholy alliance of far left and far right. Would it meet such resistance today? It seems unlikely, given a non-existent opposition, and a Mogadonic PLP - which is one reason why a time-hungry Labour government is likely to pursue it, as the least bothersome way to finish unfinished business and make space for other things. Winston Churchill would certainly applaud.

Ben Pimlott is the warden of Goldsmiths College, London