House of Lords is seen as a stuffy but useful revising chamber for legislation

Reform has moved at a glacial pace and the latest attempt, by Nick Clegg, ended in failure

The House of Lords - which, like the House of Commons, is in the Palace of Westminster - lost the power to block legislation permanently in 1911. Photograph: Thinkstock

The House of Lords - which, like the House of Commons, is in the Palace of Westminster - lost the power to block legislation permanently in 1911. Photograph: Thinkstock

Wed, Oct 2, 2013, 01:00

For many, perhaps most, the House of Lords is the ultimate “club”, offering a £300-a-day sinecure to the great and the good after a lifetime of loyal service to the establishment.

In the eyes of its defenders, the UK’s upper house offers wise counsel, lifetimes of experience and a necessary brake on the extreme tendencies that afflict governments occasionally.

During the Blair years, the Lords consistently strove to defeat, or limit, the more draconian security measures pushed by Downing Street following 9/11.

Since 2010, the Lords has adopted a different role, seeking to dilute the Conservatives-led attempts to change UK welfare rules, though not often with effect.

Reform has occurred over the last century, if at a glacial pace: the Lords lost the power to block legislation permanently in 1911. Hereditary peers began to lose their dominance from the 1940s.

From 1999 onwards, it became a largely appointed house, leaving just 82 members sitting by virtue of hereditary peerages – though its size has swollen dramatically since, with an explosion in the number of life peers.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg vowed to replace it with a largely elected chamber, with senators elected for single 15-year terms and barred from running again.

His ambitions were scuppered last June when Labour was the first to back away from past declarations of support for changes to the operation of the Lords.

The opposition of Conservative MPs was the death knell: 91 of them defied a three-line whip while 19 more abstained, leading to fury amongst the Liberal Democrats. In retaliation, Clegg refused to accept changes to constituency boundaries – an act that could stop the Conservatives from winning a couple of dozen seats in 2015.

Opposition to change has many explanations. Some believe the Lords, while it may be stuffy and octogenarian in style, works well as a revising chamber. Many of the reports from its committees, for instance, display a breadth of understanding often missing among MPs – particularly when it comes to the EU.

Others fear the balance
in British politics would change if a new cadre of professionals had an electoral mandate, thus interfering with the rights of the House
of Commons.

More object not so much to the principle of having a directly elected upper house as to the idea that just a portion, rather than all, members should be elected.