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19 May 2003updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Modernisation? We didn’t mean this

Robin Cook demands that Tony Blair put forward two simple alternatives for Lords reform: an all-appo

By Robin Cook

For the first time in 20 years, Britain has a cabinet minister who is not a member of the Commons taking charge of a major department. Baroness (Valerie) Amos, who will take over from Clare Short at International Development, is an impressive minister. She brings a welcome diversity to the government line-up. It is not a criticism of her to recognise the constitutional difficulty that arises when the head of a department is not accountable to anybody elected by the British people.

Labour fought the last election on a manifesto commitment to give Britain a second chamber that was “more representative and democratic”. On present progress, we shall fight the next election trying to talk away the stubborn survival of the old, unrepresentative, undemocratic House of Lords.

The Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, which reported this month, is now on the political equivalent of life support. The third of its members who support serious reform have served notice that if the government does not give a clear commitment to change in response to this latest report, they will resign by the summer. At that point, the last hope for modernisation of the Lords in this parliament will have been extinguished.

Some will rejoice at such an outcome – none more so than Derry Irvine, who is engagingly frank in private about his ambition to remain Lord Chancellor in a third Blair term. The demise of reform will leave him with an unreconstructed chamber that still requires a bewigged and robed Lord Chancellor to preside.

The foot soldiers who worked for a modernising new Labour government have rather less to be pleased about. None could have imagined that after two full Labour terms in office we might still be left with nearly 100 hereditary peers taking seats in parliament because they are the first-born (males) of the right families.

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The reforms carried out under the first Blair government even provide a mechanism by which these hereditary peers can renew their number. They have just held the first by-election to fill a vacancy in their ranks. Only hereditary peers can stand and only existing peers can vote. This cannot be what Labour meant when we promised to bring democracy to the Lords.

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Not that the Lords would be made democratic simply by removing the hereditary peers. That would leave parliament with a second chamber that was wholly appointed, the option which received the lowest support when the Commons voted between alternative models for a reformed second chamber.

The challenge of making a system of appointment into a popular cause is illustrated by the cautionary tale of the Stevenson peers. They were chosen after a lengthy process of recruitment by the new independent commission under Lord Stevenson and still turned out to be the same adornments of the establishment who used to emerge under the old system of patronage. They included the wife of Geoffrey Howe, who was already a Lady by virtue of her marriage to a knight, later a lord, and who is now made a Lady as a peeress in her own right. This prompted the observation that she was once, twice, three times a lady. Far from making the Lords appear in touch with the modern world, “the people’s peers” were such a public relations disaster that those of us with ministerial responsibility begged the Stevenson Commission not to come up with any more names.

That the outcome was embarrassing is not the fault of those appointed, or even of those making the appointments. The reality is that any system which leaves appointment to parliament in the hands of the great and the good will result in the appointment of fellow members of the great and the good.

A strength of democracy is that it enables the people to choose representatives of themselves rather than of the establishment. A healthy parliament needs occasional iconoclastic figures, but such people get a chance only from a populist franchise. It is hard to imagine the Stevenson Commission appointing a John Prescott or an Ian McCartney, still less an Alice Mahon.

Yet the attempt to get agreement in the Commons to democracy in the Lords was frustrated when none of the options for election secured a majority. We came tantalisingly close. The option for a second chamber in which 80 per cent of the membership would be elected was defeated by only three votes. There could have been the same majority in favour if three Conservatives who supported reform had not voted No by mistake.

But the primary cause of the stalemate was Tony Blair’s prior declaration that he favoured an all-appointed second chamber. The inmates of No 10 were subsequently rather sheepish about the prime ministerial demarche. They briefed that they were badly advised by the whips’ office, which told them that two-thirds of Labour MPs would vote for an all-appointed Lords if Tony came out for it. This may be true, but I did warn Tony myself that most Labour MPs would vote against patronage as the sole entry to the second chamber. The votes established that an all-appointed second chamber cannot command a majority even with the support of the Prime Minister, but also that a democratic second chamber cannot get a majority against his opposition. Reform is at an impasse unless Tony Blair is willing to shift from the position on which he has publicly impaled himself. If No 10 is really looking for a pretext to get back onside with reform, the government should seize on the necessity to give a positive response to the joint committee, lest it dissolve.

It can do this by continuing the growing practice under Labour of publishing a draft text of a bill as the basis for consultation. The government should undertake to provide the joint committee with a draft bill on Lords reform for detailed scrutiny. Such a text could narrow the options on the composition of the second chamber, as the sheer plethora of options was in part the undoing of the reformers last time round. A straightforward choice between an all-appointed House and a majority-elected second chamber would helpfully polarise the real alternatives for reform.

The landslide of 1997 was possible largely because the promise to modernise Britain achieved popular resonance, in contrast to John Major’s nostalgia for a Britain of warm beer and village cricket. Nothing could be more false to our promise than the failure to give Britain a democratic second chamber or the willingness to tolerate the survival into the 21st century of the medieval principle of primogeniture as a route of entry into parliament.

This is an issue that goes wider than Labour’s electoral credibility. We face a crisis of confidence in parliamentary democracy of which the plunge in electoral turnout is only one symptom. If we wish to address this problem, we cannot afford a second chamber of parliament that lacks legitimacy precisely because it is not representative. The Commons needs a second chamber that can be a credible partner in commanding respect for parliament, but no second chamber will be credible unless it is democratic.

Robin Cook MP was Leader of the House of Commons, 2001-2003