Don't make it harder to govern

The government would get a better press for its constitutional reforms if its own powers weren't at present so great. As it brings forward each change, our instinct is to shout back, "Not enough!". The media consensus, shared by many Labour supporters, as well as political opponents, is that such a mighty government needs more checks and balances. The control freaks have to meet their match.

The liberal, reformist cry is based on a false premise. It starts with an assumption that governments in Britain have too much power and not enough accountability. We have already heard complaints that the devolution programme is too limited in its ambitions; we shall hear many more complaints, at a higher pitch, over the future of the House of Lords. For it seems likely that the Labour Party will propose an appointed second chamber, rather than one that is wholly or partially elected.

The protests that have followed the leak of the party's favoured proposal may force a rethink. But I doubt it. After all, the proposal will not necessarily become policy. That is in the hands of Lord Wakeham's commission. In my programme for Channel 4 on 2 May, Blair's Way, the Tory peer gave a strong hint he would favour a more radical outcome. It is quite possible that the Labour Party submission was framed almost as a negotiating ploy: we know we won't get this, but we want an outcome as close as possible to a nominated chamber. Predictably the leak has brought to the surface all the old control freakery allegations, heightened a little by the Tories' clever support of a wholly elected second chamber. Yet the allegations hit home only because this government has such a powerful majority in the Commons. Not so long ago, governing was complicated enough without the barrier of a powerful second chamber.

Indeed, governments in Britain are accountable to voters and institutions to such a degree that there are times when it is extremely difficult for them to govern at all. That was certainly the case with the Major government, which could only totter from crisis to crisis, unable to implement radical policies even if it wanted to. Post Office privatisation? Help! We would not get it through the Commons, never mind the Lords. The poll tax? We've just lost the Ribble Valley by- election. It has to go. Norman Lamont? We've just lost the Newbury by-election. Lamont must go! A declining Commons majority, a ferocious media enjoying the hunt, a never-ending series of by-elections, local and Euro elections all made it impossible for an unpopular government to do anything very much except to die slowly. It was a government held to account for its sins in a way that would compare favourably with any European model. This can be put down partly to weak leadership, but any government in power for a long time with a small majority will not find it easy to govern in Britain.

What is more, the Major experience happened before the creation of the Scottish Parliament and other new centres of power which will pose fresh challenges for the Westminster-based government. If Major had faced an opposition party that was gradually accumulating new power bases across the country, he would have been made even weaker.

The main reason why this government is so damned strong is that it won an enormous election victory and its popularity has endured. If it had started to lose by-elections or perform badly in the opinion polls this would be a very different administration implementing slightly different policies. Governing would become a nightmare again.

Even in Blair's current dominant position, arrogance is not his abiding sin. This government is probably more preoccupied with being accountable to the voters than any of its predecessors - the accountability, though, is less to the Commons, which is stuffed full of its own supporters, and more to focus groups, the media and polls. Indeed I have often wished it to be less accountable: it would then dare to instigate policies that may, initially, be unpopular.

The creation of a wholly elected second chamber, or even a partially elected one, which is a likely outcome of the Wakeham commission, will not necessarily make a government more accountable to parliament. Nor is it automatically better for the quality of government if ministers face the barrier of another democratic body with almost as much legitimacy as the Commons. We journalists will have a ball: "Joining me now is the elected Labour leader of the second chamber who opposes his Labour government which opposes the Labour Mayor of London in his attempts to . . ." I doubt if better legislation would emerge from such frenzied high theatre.

It is the Commons that needs to be made more legitimate, not the second chamber, now that the hereditary peers are on their way out. The reason the government can ignore the Commons, as the land-slide Thatcher administrations did, is because there is no reason for it to do otherwise. This government will not lose a single vote in the Commons in this parliament.

There are many problems associated with electoral reform. But they are less daunting than the alternative, which is to have a Commons dominated by one party and countered by an elected second chamber as well as all the other checks and balances. The second chamber will be able to cast a more legitimate eye over proceedings once the hereditary peers have gone. That is all it would need to do if the Commons became more robust. Nor would such a chamber be full of "Tony's cronies". Blair is just as likely to reward Messrs Patten, Heseltine, Mellor and Ashdown as to pose the question, "Is he one of us?".