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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 11:55 GMT
Lords not a leaping topic
The House of Lords Debating the Queens Speech, November 1995, by Andrew Festing
Could talk of reform even send the Lords to sleep?
Changes to the House of Lords will fundamentally change the way the UK is governed. So why aren't voters interested in the issue?

Constitution and reform make strange bedfellows. The current row over the future of the House of Lords has seen the leader writers of "lefty" broadsheets such as the Guardian grudgingly praise the Conservative's Iain Duncan Smith.

What has IDS done to woo such a tough audience? He's suggested the Lords should be replaced by a Senate of mostly elected members, rather than having a solely appointed upper house - the government's preferred plan.

Iain Duncan Smith
IDS can look left for praise too
The Tory leader may even be winning some hearts on the Labour backbenches thanks to his vision for reform.

Many on the party's left have long hoped for the creation of a vibrant second chamber and are horrified that the UK might instead end up with an outfit resembling Canada's notoriously neutered senate.

As the world's only wholly-appointed upper house, the Canadian Senate acts more as a quiet retirement home for party faithful than as a check to the government, according to the Constitution Unit at the University College of London.

So why, if political types are in such a tizzy over Lords reform, has the heated debate not spilled over into the public's imagination?

Turned off

"Of course the public aren't interested," says professor of politics John Curtice, "It's a chattering classes issue. The only bit of the House of Lords that ever had any resonance with the public was the toffs dressed in ermine."

Mr Curtice says that while political scientists and journalists delight in poring over the details of different electoral systems, ordinary people remain slightly baffled.

Lord Archer
'Only Lords in ermine interest the public'
Citing the mild public interest in last year's appointment to the Lords of so-called people's peers and the exit of the hereditary peers, he says "the issue of composition, who sits in the Lords, how many are elected, how many are appointed, is quite easy to popularise. But try explaining reform of the chamber's role and powers".

The lack of public interest might also have something to do with a dearth of drama in the current round of reforms.

When the Commons last set about a major revision of the Lords, back in 1910, it was because the upper house had dug its heels in opposing David Lloyd George's "People's Budget." That deadlock saw the country go to the polls twice before the Lords' powers were finally curtailed.

The current reform debate - still in its dullish early stages - has yet to find a place in the national discourse, says Catherine Bromley of the National Centre for Social Research.

If it ain't got that swing

"The discussion of reform is really going on at the elite level and is really not filtering down very far."

However, voters are very definitely swinging behind the idea of overhauling the second house, according to opinion poll figures compiled by Ms Bromley.

Almost two-thirds of Britons opposed any change to the Lords back in 1983. By 1999 the tables had turned, with a solid 64% calling for change of some kind.

These figures do not, however, mean that the issue of reform has crept up the public's list of priorities, says Dr Neil Gavin, an expert in voter behaviour.

Indigestible

"I'd be extremely surprised if Lords reform even registers on the public's radar."

In polls, such "bread and butter" issues as health, education, unemployment and transport consistently figure far higher in the minds of ordinary people than the pet topics of politicos - Europe and constitutional reform.

Yet, while voters worry about their children's schooling or their parents' healthcare, John Curtice says that however dull Lords reform appears, it does indeed have a role in delivering these crucial services.

See also:

18 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Lords plans to be shelved
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