After a century of attempts, will the House of Lords be reformed?
LONDON LETTER:David Cameron says he will try one more time to get an agreement from his MPs, but he faces a tough task
IT IS difficult to defend the existence of an unelected parliamentary chamber often filled with elderly occupants, including some still there by hereditary right. However, such a case, oddly, can be made for the House of Lords.
For a century, many have demanded the reform of “the other place” in Westminster. Lloyd George wanted to do it. So did Winston Churchill, although he later changed his mind. So, too, did Harold Wilson.
Going into the 2010 election, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all agreed in their manifestoes – to varying degrees, admittedly – that the Lords should be turned into a senate, filled mostly by elected members.
Once in power, Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg produced a plan that would involve 80 per cent of the chamber being elected over three elections, using a regional list and a partly proportional voting system that some say would enshrine his party’s influence in British politics.
On Tuesday night, Conservative rebels forced British prime minister David Cameron and Clegg to abandon a Commons motion that would have limited debate of the reforms to just 10 days, even if the legislation itself was cleared for later debate.
However, as Cameron said, approving the legislation – which would see four out of five senators in a new upper house elected over 10 years – is useless until means are also agreed that would give it some chance of getting into law.
For many outside the bubble of Westminster, the issue that has brought 91 Conservative MPs into open rebellion against Cameron is incomprehensible: reform of the House of Lords.
The focus on the time to be put aside is understandable. Labour’s Harold Wilson tried, but failed, to reform the Lords, finally giving up when his ministers collapsed in exhaustion after one all-night debate after another.
Cameron is accused by Clegg of not having done enough to persuade, or force, his backbenchers into line. Clegg has pointed out that he and senior Liberal Democrats have gone to the wall frequently to get their people to vote for unpopular legislation, notably tuition fees.
Just over two years into their coalition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have come to a fork in the road. The choice in the coming weeks will determine not just the effectiveness of the union but, perhaps, its very existence.