Now take on the big targets

The row over the House of Lords, in which an aristocracy springs forth as a defender of democracy, sometimes seems worthy of one of those ancient philosophical conundrums about Cretan liars and the like. Certainly, everybody involved talks humbug. The hereditary peers would not bother their heads in the slightest about the technicalities of elections if a Labour government were not in office and if they themselves were not about to be stripped of their preposterous privileges: democracy, to say nothing of civil liberties, could go to the dogs as long as a good lunch was to be had in the House. Equally, ministers talk of "the will of the people", knowing perfectly well that not one voter in 100 understands fully the difference between open and closed lists and that, in any case, most people could not care less about who sits in the European Parliament, since it is a body which has pitifully few powers. The opponents of closed lists, too, should know that the whole point of proportional representation is that it gives a fair shout to minority parties: if they find the closed list so obnoxious and new Labour so freakish in its control, let them form their own party, pledged to a bearable lightness of leadership.

All this distracts attention from the central question: will this government introduce significant checks on its own powers? What has held up Lords reform in the past has been the inability of any party to agree on a replacement and, in particular, the fear of the governing majority in the Commons that a democratically legitimate second chamber could frustrate it more frequently and more effectively. Labour has got round this difficulty by shelving the question and, as Steve Richards writes on page 6, the wider issue is far from resolved. Again, the government deserves high praise for devolving powers to Scotland and Wales and for allowing Londoners to elect their own representative body. But considerable powers (just about all powers, as far as most of the country is concerned) remain in Whitehall; the extent to which these are exercised openly, democratically, accountably and moderately will be the real test of this government's sincerity.

Professor David Marquand, in a recent lecture, reprinted in the NS (23 October), has pointed out the conflict between the pluralist and dirigiste strands in new Labour's inheritance. The pluralists will see little encouragement in recent developments. As the Queen's Speech puts it, "my government will introduce legislation to modernise local government . . . and secure delivery of high-quality local services". When you hear those words "modernise", "delivery" and "quality", you should feel for your democratic wallet. What they invariably mean is more Whitehall meddling, more monitoring, more checklists, more paperwork. Meanwhile, proposals for directly elected mayors and more local tax-raising powers outside London have been delayed. In the schools, David Blunkett's education department dictates teaching methods in English and maths to an extent that the Tories never dared, even telling teachers how many minutes to spend reading aloud from a book. This, please note, is not laid down through any legislation that MPs could debate and amend; rather, it is enforced through what some call, not entirely without justice, Chris Woodhead's "reign of terror" at the Office for Standards in Education.

And that is the nub of it. A centralist, dirigiste approach is not always and necessarily wrong: without it, it is hard to see how governments can tackle the more extreme social inequalities. The important thing is that, whatever powers ministers hold, great or small, these should be exercised openly and accountably. As Stuart Weir and David Beetham put it in their new book Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: "The complexity of policy-making within the core executive . . . and the secrecy within which policies are prepared severely constrain the ability of cabinet, let alone parliament, its members, select committees and agencies . . . like the National Audit Office, to scrutinise and hold the executive accountable." Yet a Freedom of Information Bill will be another absentee from this parliamentary session and, when it does emerge, it is likely to be considerably weaker than its supporters hoped.

None of this is cause for despair. The British state, the most mighty in Europe, will not be dismantled in a day. But ministers must remind themselves that the abolition of the archaic and indefensible hereditary peers is the easy bit. The important enemies - not least a government's natural reluctance to curtail its own power - have still to be tackled.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family