The wars of the Lords will go on and on

In the House of Lords some of our peers are having a ball. They sense they have won the argument. They know they are privileged and want to hold on to those privileges for as long as possible. Some of them genuinely believe they are helping the wheels of democracy function more smoothly.

What is more they are part of a club where good lunches are readily on hand, served by deferential staff eager to meet their lordships' concerns.

I am not referring to the hereditary peers. They are fighting a doomed cause and they know it. Their undemocratic jousting as the bell tolls makes no difference whatsoever to their fate. A more compliant attitude to the European elections or, indeed, to the prospect of their own demise would not have saved them. The government has been determined to kill off the hereditary peers from the outset. The only internal debate among ministers was whether to wield the axe right away in the first Queen's Speech last year, a move which Jack Straw advocated, or to wait until now. Perhaps it would have been better to have targeted the upper house right away. But no matter, the bill will become law over the next year or so and I suspect that even the Conservatives will prove reluctant defenders of the indefensible when the hereditaries climb into their last ditch.

No, the peers who are looking very pleased with themselves are those who have been appointed by Tony Blair over the past 18 months. This is the significant development arising from the events of the past few weeks. While the hereditary peers have become the great villains, the peers who have entered the House through patronage have become the good guys almost by default. It is not they who are blocking the will of the Commons. Far from it. They have been turning up night after night in an attempt to ensure the will of the Commons triumphs against the baddies.

The more intense the battle becomes between the government and the hereditary peers, over the European elections and over the abolition of their voting rights, the more the bigger picture moves out of focus. We should not forget that tackling the hereditaries is the relatively easy part of the Lords reform. It is what follows that is far more politically treacherous. It becomes more treacherous now that the appointed peers are enjoying themselves and playing an important role in the nation's affairs.

The appointed peers are perfectly happy about the short-term battle to abolish the hereditaries. But I do not detect any great demand among them for further reforms which would threaten their own positions. The disruptive antics of the hereditaries has given the appointed peers a greater sense of legitimacy. Recently, I asked one leading Blairite peer what reform he thought should follow the immediate struggle ahead. The limit of his ambition was the establishment of a joint Commons/Lords committee to improve co-ordination between the two houses. This is not a bad idea, but hardly revolutionary. It is difficult to imagine such a proposal packing them out in Hyde Park on a Saturday morning with chants of "we want a joint committee".

Others are thinking about how the Lords might be turned into an elected chamber. But in the examples that various peers have offered, I notice, they themselves are always safely elected. I do not blame them. No one likes to contemplate their own abolition, especially from such a privileged club. Now that so many glamorous Blairites have joined the Lords, the restaurants serving them sometimes have the sparkle of the Groucho Club, except that those eating and drinking are paid to be there.

But as ever with Lords reform, it will be the Commons itself which proves an even bigger obstacle. There have been lyrical observations over the past few days about how the scuppering of the government's closed list system for the Euro elections is precisely how the upper house should work - but only once it has been fully reformed. In other words, a more democratic second chamber would have the right to stifle the will of the Commons. But it is precisely that prospect which has killed off Lords reform in the past and many Labour MPs are still opposed to any change which challenges their legitimacy. As Lord Richard, the former leader of the Lords, observed in an NS interview in July, "whatever you do to the Lords is going to make the second chamber more troublesome for the Commons. There's no getting away from that and I know of a lot of MPs on both sides who are worried." There is absolute unity in the Labour Party that the hereditaries should go. While this is an historic and admir-able cause to adopt, it is relatively easy because it raises no questions about the future functions of a second chamber and who should carry them out.

Conservative strategists are putting it about that the government has no intention of introducing further reform. This is largely a fig leaf to justify their ill-judged opposition to the first phase of the changes. My view is that the government is sincere in its determination to move on to the second phase after the election. Indeed, Straw's preference at one stage was to opt for the "big bang" approach of removing the hereditaries and reforming the upper house at the same time.

But if and when the second term arrives I wonder how big the appetite will be. The appointed peers will be carrying their medals from the triumphant battle with the hereditaries. The Commons will continue to be protective of its own rights. Other equally treacherous issues such as EMU will demand immediate attention.

The Queen's Speech marks the start of a long, long constitutional battle. The more intense the first phase becomes, the less, I fear, will be the appetite for another, more bloody conflict in a second Labour term.

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