Billy's plan for the Lords: I started listening in Watford. Before we reached Derby, I was convinced

Published: 25/10/1999   by: Article by Roy Hattersley published in The Guardian newspaper, 25 October, 1999

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled north by train with Billy Bragg. He was on his way to host a rock music radio show and I was making my regular pilgrimage to watch Sheffield Wednesday lose to an inferior team. We talked about neither his elation nor my depression. To be honest, I hardly talked at all. I spent the journey listening to the people's Billy's plan for House of Lords' reform.

For many years my railway journeys have been enlivened with other passengers' plans for world improvement — raising the temperature of the North Sea, solving the fuel crisis with leaf-burning power stations, and reasserting the Queen's sovereignty over the Duchy of Normandy. So my eyes glazed as soon as Bragg began. By the time we got to Watford, I was all attention. His plan has an elegant simplicity which is logically irresistible.

Bragg — unlike the government — had approached Lords' reform from first principles. An upper house which is not elected would lack legitimacy and therefore authority, but the British people (pace the European elections) have no enthusiasm for additional ballots. A second chamber should be able to scrutinise and improve (but not permanently veto) legislation which has been initiated by the Commons, but it must not replicate the work of 'the other place'.

Bragg backed up his constitutional theory with a convincing imitation of the reception likely to await a canvasser who knocks on a door and seeks support for a would-be 'scrutiniser and reviser'. He also expressed his doubts about the MPs ever voting for a replacement of the House of Lords which rivalled the powers of the House of Commons.

The Bragg plan accommodates all the difficulties by aggregating the popular vote at each general election and allocating seats in the upper house, according to the share each party won. In May 1997, 43% of voters supported Labour. The Conservatives attracted 31% of the vote, the Liberals 17% and other parties 9%. In a Bragg second chamber of (say) 200 seats, Labour would have been allocated 86 seats. The 'elective dictatorship' in the Commons — an unassailable majority willing to give unthinking support to whatever the government proposes — would be checked and balanced by a house in which it was a minority.

The Commons would remain a house of constituency representatives with members closely connected to the men and women who directly elected them. Seats in the senate, or whatever it was called, would be distributed 'proportionally'. I suggested (just as we were passing Leicester) that the prime minister might be particularly attracted by a scheme which seduced weak minded Liberals.

Questions about how the Bragg upper house behaved — the period for which it could delay legislation, its right to amend if not to initiate legislation and its powers over 'supply', the authorisation of spending — would be more easily answered were we to create a 'legitimate', elected chamber, rather than one which is composed by patronage. But about one thing the old Red Wedge was certain. No ministers outside the Commons. Were the members of the upper house to be offered the prospect of preferment, ambition would take the place of judgment. Backbenchers are kept in line not by party loyalty or whips but in the hope of office.

By the time we got to Derby, the only outstanding question in my mind was what could possibly stand in the way of the Bragg plan's implementation. Even the need to elect candidates from a list — a practice discredited by the European elections — could be made acceptable by legislating for party nominees to be chosen by rank and file party members, a group of men and women who are notoriously happy to take part in continuous ballots.

The Bragg plan would, in fact, create a second chamber which could do exactly what second chambers are supposed to do — maintain a semi-independent scrutiny of government legislation. As we arrived in Sheffield, I realised that was why there is no hope of the prime minister accepting it.

Roy Hattersley
The Guardian, 25 October, 1999

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