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20 November 1998

What could be worse than the House of Lords?

The proposals for the 'democratic' reform of the House of Lords are not all that they seem, argues Bruno Waterfield

For the first time since 1986 the government is contemplating overriding the House of Lords by invoking the Parliament Act to assert its legislative authority, in order to force through its European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Unlike the highly politicised confrontations of the 1980s this current spate is actually about a bill that originated in the Lords. The aim of the bill is to bring British practice for elections to the European Parliament into line with the rest of Europe.

The significance of this latest clash between the Commons and the Lords is that virtually everybody seems to agree that the reform of the House of Lords is inevitable and long overdue.

The constitutional tradition that an unelected 'upper' house, dominated by hereditary peers, should check the power of the 'lower' Commons has taken an unprecedented bashing. Even Conservative leader William Hague supports a reformed second chamber and the abolition of the hereditary principle. So too does the Conservative hereditary peer Lord Cranborne, who is leading the current opposition to the government. So is Britain embracing democracy?

At the start of 1997 Britain had 5681 executive quangos. The people who sit on these bodies were appointed, often on a professional basis, rather than being born into the job like many in the House of Lords. New Labour's proposals to abolish hereditary peers in the Lords will merely create another 1100 political appointments in this, the grandest quango in all the land. They will not necessarily be party political posts (a royal commission will look into the selection process), but could come from all walks of life. They will be selected for their expertise, their independence, their diverse ethnic and cultural mix, and will be everything but elected. A reformed second chamber would resemble the focus groups so beloved of today's politicians.

Labour's reform package - a stopgap, until an elective principle is enshrined sometime in the indefinite future - runs the risk, as many have pointed out, of turning the Lords into 'Blair's poodle'. But will even an elected second chamber make Britain more democratic?

In New Britain circumstances are such that what are presented to us as democratic reforms usually turn out to be the opposite - the degradation of democracy. The contested proposals in the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which is causing the consternation between the Lords and the Commons, are a typical example.

PR is a definitely a better way at representing a real majority in terms of votes cast. But are today's politicians interested in winning majorities, real or otherwise? The preferred outcome for PR enthusiasts is a lack of a clear majority, leading to a new kind of positive politics - cooperation, not confrontation. The people decide? Not really. Paddy and Tony will sort out the centre ground; stitched up in a backroom - a bit like the cabinet committee that Ashdown sits on already. The undemocratic instincts that inform these reforms are illustrated by the proposal for closed lists. Once political parties were about what we the people wanted, how we the people organised; we made them, they represented us. In New Britain, in European elections at least, they will be a state-registered rubber stamp. The Neill Committee on party funding heard proposals from democratic reformers in Charter 88 that would turn hitherto independent political parties into virtual government departments.

For today's politicians democracy is more about reaching a consensus - it is about what they do, not what we do. Nobody talks about fighting for an authority derived from a majority of the people. Democratic 'modernisers' have all kinds of schemes to make government fairer, more 'modern' and more 'effective'. But nobody seems to talk about a contest for popular support.

In this context a second chamber, elected or unelected, will be part of the problem, not a solution. The new mystique of consensus politics and non-adversarial assemblies will prove to be at least as undemocratic as the mystique of tradition it aims to supplant.

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