Hearing Sir Nicholas Soames huff and puff on the Today programme today about the importance of the House of Lords made me smile. This is a man best known for his outdated attitudes towards women (one of whom famously described having sex with him as akin to having a small wardrobe topple on to her with the key sticking out) rather than for his parliamentary acumen. He has done very well out of his famous family (Winston Churchill being his grandfather) and seems to believe that such families as his own should rule over us in perpetuity. In fact, his very existence illustrates why the Upper House should be reformed - and the hereditary principle swept away completely.
The House of Lords is an anachronism, albeit sometimes a very pleasant and extremely eccentric one, and should be reformed. This will of course reduce the comedy value inherent in our upper House but I don't really think that parliament is there just to amuse the sketch-writers.
I spent around half of my twenties working there in the mid-nineties, for the Labour front-bench and leader in the House of Lords. I remember those years well. Some events and people are etched upon my memory.
My most consistent observation was that the peers who least deserved their titles were the ones most likely to insist that a young Labour researcher should bow and scrape to them. I won't name any names, but it was the former Labour and Tory backbenchers who had been banished to the place of the living dead so their constituencies could elect newbie hopefuls who stood most upon their dignity. Cabinet and Prime Ministers - Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle and others hated their titles - Denis Healey definitely preferred a hug.
The green marble toilets deserve a mention - along with the surprisingly large number of Lady peers far too grand to wash their hands after using them. I used to open the door for them so they wouldn't spread their germs. I'm sorry to report that few said thank you.
Then there was the letter written from one hereditary Tory peer to a Minister that I found on the photocopier one day - stating her sincere belief in the existence of fairies and her suggestion that Government research time should be devoted to their welfare. I can still taste the excellent boarding school style dinners (mmm, suet) served for knock-down prices in the Lords dining rooms, and the collective gentle snoozing by so many peers, of all parties, both in the chamber and during parliamentary meetings.
Due to the age demographic of the Lords, police officers standing guard at the Peers' Entrance should have been offered danger money. One charming but rather flappy former Labour Minister sent a few flying in her time. Lord Cledwyn, my beloved former boss and Labour leader in the Lords, could only turn left in his car. If his wife, Jane, couldn't drive him to the Lords, it could take him hours to get there.
Of course this isn't to say there aren't lots of extremely committed and talented peers - many of whom try to amend the draft legislation sent up to them from the Commons. The Lords select committees, too, are stuffed with experts. To name but two of the best peers, Tanni Grey-Thompson, the former Paralympian speaks eloquently on many issues, including assisted dying. Jane Campbell has been a brilliantly articulate fighter for independent living for disabled people.
But good as they are, they cannot camouflage the fact that the place is out of time and out of place - and I have no doubt that if they stood for election, they would romp home, if the right kind of system was devised so cross-benchers could become Independents. A reformed House of Lords doesn't have to be a rival to the Commons - it could complement it, something I argued when I wrote a pamphlet for the thinktank, IPPR about this, Straight to the Senate, several years ago. Even then it was seen as remarkably controversial to demand democracy in our Upper House (I wasn't allowed to give interviews on it as I was Newsnight's political producer when it was published.) It's very disappointing that the debate has hardly moved on since then.
I dislike many policies the Coalition has brought forward - but this is not one of them. Of course Clegg is doing it for base political reasons - but it is still the right thing to do - even if it is for the wrong reason.
However charming and eccentric many peers are, unelected parliamentarians should not exist in the 21st century. We, the voters, should be able to vote for two Houses of Parliament (it's striking that very few systems have a uni-cameral system and few commentators recommend them). Story time is over. It's time for a grown-up debate about what sort of elected second chamber we should have - not whether or not to have it.
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