When the powers of Britain’s House of Lords were first curtailed, by the Parliament Act 1911, the preamble included the words “whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis…”

Almost a century later, Britain is still waiting, but elected members in the Lords moved a step closer yesterday when the Blair government released a white paper setting out options for further reform of the upper house.

Until 50 years ago, the Lords remained almost entirely hereditary; the exceptions were the Law Lords, Britain’s most senior appellate judges, and the Anglican bishops and archbishops – the “Lords Spiritual”.

In 1958 life peers were introduced, appointed by the government of the day, and since then only a handful of new hereditary peerages have been created.

In 1999, the Blair government excluded most of the several hundred hereditary peers; just 92 remain, leaving the house dominated by the life peers. (Currently 619 of them, according to Wikipedia.) An attempt at further reform in 2003 failed to muster a majority in the House of Commons.

The government’s preferred option would exclude the remaining hereditary peers, and make half of the house elected (by a proportional list system, in conjunction with European parliament elections). Its chances for approval are uncertain, since it will be opposed by both sides: those who want a fully elected chamber, and those who are against any elected members at all.

The main worry about an elected upper house is that it would be a rival to the legitimacy of the House of Commons. But the real problem is that Commons is so undemocratic that almost any alternative electoral system, unless it was blatantly gerrymandered, would better reflect public opinion, and therefore risk conveying greater legitimacy.

The solution, of course, is to reform the Commons; it is nothing short of appalling that a party can win a large majority, as Blair did in 2005, with only 35% of the vote. Then, as in most democracies, an elected upper house will seem its natural counterpart.

If the political will is not there for serious reform, in some ways the least offensive alternative would be to go back to a hereditary chamber.

It would at least have the sanction of tradition behind it, and hereditary succession introduces an element of randomness that the government cannot control.

Peter Fray

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