The Cameron-Clegg government has been forced into ignominious retreat on its plan to reform the House of Lords, following a rebellion by close to 100 Tory backbench MPs. Their revolt, together with a proposed “no” vote by Labour MPs, would have seen the reform plan go down.

The proposal for “reform” of the Lords — if it can be called that — is to replace the current 800, yes, 800 members of the Lords with a mind-bogglingly complex transitional process, whereby the House will eventually comprise around 450 members.

Currently, the Lords comprises around 650 life peers, another 90 hereditary peers elected back to the chamber by the other peers (after the Blair government removed most hereditary peers in the late 1990s), and up to 21 “lords spiritual” — archbishops, priests, and a rabbi or two.

It is to the considerable discredit of the reformers that they propose a plan even more complex, by which the Lords would consist of (eventually) 240 members elected for 15 year — yes 15 year — terms, 60 appointed members, the religious lords, and one or two others.

Importantly, especially for the Lib-Dems, the 15-year members would be elected by proportional representation, thus smuggling the system into the national level of UK politics, and creating a counterpoint to the first-past-the-post Commons.

The reform proposal has been a key campaign pledge of the Lib-Dems, and the Tories also committed to it. But it was never written into the binding coalition agreement. Tory rebel backbenchers thus claimed that voting against the bill would not render the coalition agreement void.

The Lib-Dems, furious at what they see as welching on a deal, have intimated that they will now reconsider their support for the Tories’ favoured electoral redistribution bill. This would reduce 650 constituencies to 600, and even out some of the imbalances — which favour Labour — caused by seats shaped around local boundaries.

The real complexity of the vote today was that it was not the bill itself that was rejected. The reading of the bill itself passed with Labour support — the bill that was rejected today was the Programme Bill, which would have given the reform bill a timetable.

Labour refused to support that, and sent its foot soldiers into the newsrooms to explain this hopelessly cynical move while the Coalition fell upon itself in recrimination.

There is cynicism all around in this debate. The proposal for the new Lords is such a mix of paternalism, featherbedding and cronyism that, in terms of actual power structures, it barely marks any improvement at all. It buys into the notion that the alleged benefits of a hereditary chamber are disinterested wisdom, and thus offers an ersatz version of that.

But if they proposed a wholly elected chamber with a reasonable term of office, one thing would be made clear — what the hell does the UK need an upper house for? Either it creates a fully regional system, with large multi-member electorates, or it simply has a duplicate chamber. Once you abandon the notion of disinterested wisdom as masking a whole series of interests and ideologies, what other rationale can there be?

That would mean real constitutional reform in the UK, something that might actually make the place less undemocratic. And no one wants that. No one likely to get into the Lords anyway.

Peter Fray

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