Letter from Westminster - Lords reform: beating the same drum as Tom Paine

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Next week the House of Commons will be voting on the Bill to democratise the House of Lords. It has taken 101 years to get to this stage, since the idea was first promoted by the then Liberal government in 1911. And of course the idea was in common currency long before, not least of all through the pen of Lewes’s own Thomas Paine, who observed:

“As to that hospital of incurables, the British House of Peers, it is an excrescence growing out of corruption; and there is no more affinity or resemblance between any of the branches of a legislative body originating from the right of the people, and the aforesaid House of Peers, than between a regular member of the human body and an ulcerated wen”.

Personally, I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but it is surely unexceptional to argue that those who govern us ought to be elected. Yet astonishingly there seems to be no shortage of people prepared to argue that our second chamber should remain full of people who are there by appointment, largely a reward for clapped-out politicians who have towed the party line in the Commons, and those who are there by accident of birth.

We have had the Battle of Lewes, which helped establish parliamentary democracy, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, the ground-breaking 1832 Reform Bill, the suffragette movement, the extension of the vote to 18-year-olds, and still some argue that it is right that half of Parliament should be unelected and its membership largely based on crude patronage.

People must be free to choose who represents them, and able to get rid of them if they do not come up to the mark. You, the reader, cannot choose who is in the Lords, and you cannot get rid of any who are there. That is indefensible.

Perhaps it is that inexorable logic that caused reform of the House of Lords to feature in the election manifestoes of all three major parties in 2010. You would think therefore that it should sail through next week. Think again. In terms of the Coalition, the Lib Dems are solidly in favour, and Prime Minister David Cameron, to his credit, has been robust in his commitment to drive this reform through.

There are, however, likely to be a significant number of Tory backbenchers who take a different view. That in itself would not be a problem were it not for the attitude of the Labour Party.

When it came to the vote on electoral reform, they clearly decided that short-term political advantage was more important than the longer term interests of the country, or indeed of their own self-interest as a party.

Sadly, it seems that they may have made the same calculation again on this occasion. So while they say they intend to vote for Second Reading, a process to allow the Bill to proceed to the next stage, they intend to vote with right-wing Tory backbenchers to allow an indefinite amount of time to be spent on the Bill, thereby encouraging hundreds or thousands of wrecking amendments to be put down for debate. The only outcomes from this will be to occupy vast hours of parliamentary time – far more than on hunting, for example - and eventually to run the Bill into the sand. Reform will thus be lost.

Tom Paine would be turning in his grave.

By Norman Baker MP