Tories go wild on the Lords

All of a sudden, the Conservatives have become advocates of constitutional reform. Indeed, some of them in their self-confident evangelism for full-blooded change make Labour MPs seem like bewildered Conservatives.

They laid out their new thinking (or the early signs of it) in a Commons debate this week. That is why nobody noticed. If a memo had been leaked to the Daily Telegraph it would have been front-page news, followed up by the Today programme; but Commons debates, televised and on the record, are ignored. Theoretically the debate concerned the legislation to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers. But such perimeters could not constrain the Tories in their reforming zeal.

Thus the front-bench spokesman on constitutional affairs, Oliver Letwin, declared that "the Conservatives will make radical and serious proposals for the reform not only of the House of Lords, but for the constitution of parliament as a whole". Later when I spoke to Letwin on Despatch Box on BBC2, he expressed confidence that the Conservatives' proposals for a second chamber would be far more radical than those put forward by the government.

While Labour MPs remain wary of looking beyond the abolition of hereditary peers, the most unlikely Tory backbenchers have become spear-carriers for the democratic revolution. Guess who used the Commons debate to propose a directly elected upper chamber in the following terms: "We should have a revised upper house consisting of 87 elected members . . . the current number of European constituencies . . . The members should be elected for six-year terms, with one third of them being elected every two years. That would give the second chamber a separate political legitimacy from the Commons."

Who is this dangerous constitutional radical? Step forward the right-wing MP, Eric Forth, whose earlier advocacy of an English parliament has led him along a route that now incorporates a vibrant second chamber unrecognisable from the present House of Lords. The present Tory leadership has not gone so far, but it is moving in that direction. Other Tory MPs were equally daring in their proposals.

Much that the Conservatives say at the moment is irrelevant beyond the need for day-to-day ritualistic confrontation. Who really cares what they think about the public-sector pay awards? They will not be deciding public-sector pay for many years to come. Nor are nurses likely to regard Ann Widdecombe and Alan Duncan, however stimulating this new political double act happens to be, as their new champions. But the Tories' stance on the constitution does matter, and it will have practical consequences.

This week's debate cleared up any lingering uncertainty about the fate of the hereditary peers. The Conservatives have moved on from their earlier obsession about ambushing the legislation at every available opportunity. They appear keener now on establishing their own reformist credentials. So the proposed Strategic Rail Authority - the absolute minimum required by Britain's chronic transport problems - will now get its legislative time. Further, the Tories will be putting their proposals - now likely to veer towards daring radicalism rather than towards cautious conservatism - to the man in charge of Lords reform, John Wakeham, who is himself a former Tory minister.

The Tories are playing games, but they are making connections between different parts of Labour's somewhat haphazard approach to constitutional reform, which the government has been keen to avoid.

The Commons is bound to be affected by what happens to the upper chamber, while the role of both Houses will be redefined in the light of devolution. Proposals which the Tories are devising at the moment to make the Commons more robust in the face of a mighty executive are tactically very clever. Out of this dry constitutional terrain they have come up with a potentially populist theme. Damn the control freaks of new Labour who have become arrogant with power. Vote for us, say the Tories, and we will introduce reforms that will give you government that is truly democratic.

Such a claim will be unfair, but it will resonate. In politics, the unfair claims are often the ones that hit home. Although this government proposes to give away power, there is a widespread perception that the country is being run by four or five "control freaks".

Indeed the reforms that will make Britain a little more pluralist are themselves helping to reinforce this impression, notably in the case of Ken Livingstone's candidacy for Mayor of London. Downing Street is worried about the row that will erupt if Livingstone is vetoed. It is considering more subtle tactics. These include finding a candidate, perhaps Frank Dobson, who would beat him in an internal Labour Party contest.

But the story of Ken and London can await another day. The point I want to make here is that an act of pluralism is already being condemned as control-freakery. So is the reform of the Lords. It has become linked with "Tony's cronies", although a more credible second chamber would inevitably make life more difficult for governments over time.

For a long time the Conservatives have misread constitutional reform, initially by opposing it completely and then by becoming submerged in futile short-term parliamentary tactics.

But at a time when it is common to bump into senior Tories speculating about whether their party could do worse at the next election, here are small signs of some fresh thinking. On its most radical agenda in this parliament, the government could be tested yet.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again