House of Lords
I have spent far too much computer-time and energy recently on lobbying and campaigning for sensible and democratic reform of the House of Lords—too much, because I don’t kid myself that even the most frenzied efforts on my part are really going to have the slightest effect on the eventual outcome. But the government’s white paper proposals are so outrageous, so insulting to the intelligence of those who elected their authors, that some activity to help defeat them has seemed imperative. If the government had its way, every single element in the new second chamber (still, incidentally, to be called the House of Lords despite becoming lordless) would effectively be chosen by the political party bosses: most would be directly appointed by the parties, some would be appointed by a supposedly independent Commission—half of whose members would be chosen by the parties, and even the measly 20 per cent to be "elected" would be chosen by the closed party list system which means that the party bosses, not the electorate, would decide which individuals would get in. Thus the reforms, so-called, would actually strengthen the grip of the parties (and thus of ministers) on parliament, when all impartial observers, and a good many partial ones like me, agree that the executive is far too powerful and the capacity of the House of Commons to call the government to account far too weak.
So I have been drafting resolutions for my local Labour Party to send to Robin Cook, the Leader of the House of Commons and the man supposedly responsible for shepherding the government’s blueprint through parliament; sending a "submission" (revealing term) to the Lord Chancellor’s Department in response to the invitation to comment on the white paper, and asking my MP to pass a copy on to Robin Cook, who sent a reasonably appreciative if slightly patronising reply; getting a letter published in the Times (my second on this subject in two years); and sending another "submission" to the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration. Two small rewards for all this activity: one, the discovery that my MP is already on-side, having long favoured a wholly elected second chamber, despite this being anathema to the government; and second, a favourable reference in the Select Committee’s Report (paras 63–64) to my submission, including an extended quotation from it, a distinction which on a quick reading seems not to be shared with any other non-parliamentarian writer of any of the 72 written submissions to the committee. This of course has the effect of reinforcing my admiration, already warm, for the Select Committee’s incisive and independent-minded Chair, Tony Wright, who makes more solid sense in a three-minute interview on television than half an hour of some flannelling minister. (My submission is also available on the Select Committee’s web site.)
PS: The government bases its fanatical opposition to the idea of a wholly, or even mainly, elected second chamber to its fear that such a chamber would challenge the "primacy of the House of Commons". But what ministers really fear is a challenge by either chamber of parliament to the primacy of the executive or to the executive’s iron grip on the House of Commons. All the more reason for an elected second chamber with the democratic credentials to challenge the government when necessary: the limitations on the second chamber’s powers plus the fact that it’s the House of Commons which makes, sustains and breaks governments (as well as being the forum in which all their principal ministers sit) are more than enough to ensure that the Commons continues to be the principal chamber and to have the last word in the event of conflict.
Footnote (August 2005): My MP, mentioned above, is now no longer Tony Colman since I moved house to the Tooting constituency (Labour MP: Sadiq Khan); and Tony Colman is no longer MP for Putney, having lost his seat at the last election.