In breaking news overnight, Britain’s House of Commons voted to join the rest of the civilised world (well, most of it) by backing an elected upper house of parliament to replace the House of Lords.

The Blair government had proposed a scheme to elect half of the Lords, with the other half appointed. But it gave its MPs in the Commons a free vote on the various reform proposals, as did the opposition parties.

The 50-50 option was overwhelmingly rejected, 418 to 155. So were options for a fully appointed upper house (375-196), for 60% elected members (392-178), and for abolishing the Lords entirely (416-163).

Supporters of democracy then swung their support behind a proposal for a chamber 80% elected and 20% appointed. That was narrowly carried, 305 to 267. Finally came the vote on a fully elected upper house, which, to the surprise of observers, passed much more clearly, 337 to 224.

Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell called it “a famous victory for progressive opinion”.

Part of the difference is explained by opponents of reform voting tactically to support the most extreme proposal in the hope that the government or the Lords will baulk at it. But it also suggests a realisation that a 20% appointed component would serve no useful purpose.

The argument for an appointed House of Lords is that it can include a broad range of expertise, with the sort of people who would never stand for election. With a 50-50 split that still makes some sense, but the only real effect of 20% appointees would be to deprive the new upper house of some democratic credentials.

For some members of the Commons, that’s clearly a desirable goal. As I said last month, the lower house itself “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.”

This morning’s vote showed that most MPs, showing more sense than their leaders, are not swayed by that worry.

The test now is whether the government will implement their wishes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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