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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 14:04 GMT
New bottom line on Lords reform
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee
The new bottom line for House of Lords reform is that half of peers must be elected, says a leading democracy campaigner.
In an interview with BBC News Online, Chris Lawrence-Pietroni, acting director of campaign group Charter88, argues there has been a real shift in the debate during the last week.
With the Conservatives now pushing for an 80% elected second chamber, the government last week said it would rethink its plans, which only proposed elections for a fifth of peers.
"I do not think the government can proceed with proposals based on its white paper but quite clearly there is not support for that in Parliament or on the Labour back benches," he says.
"I think the minimum the government could get through is 50% elected. I think that is the new bottom line."
Long grass risks
The campaign chief says it is now "absolutely vital" Labour MPs continue to argue their case in the wake of last week's climbdown by the government, which had stressed its plans were up for consultation.
"I think the danger now is not so much that we will get the white paper plans but that we won't get anything at all."
Mr Lawrence-Pietroni believes the intellectual argument for a more democratic second chamber has been won.
The chief of Charter88, which is currently holding nationwide public meetings on the issue, acknowledges there is a danger of reform being kicked into the long grass.
But he sees the reform agenda as a key chance for Labour to display democratic credentials.
Pointing particularly to devolution, Mr Lawrence-Pietroni argues the government has made real progress on constitutional reform.
"What they have never done is made a real case for that and tried to engage people," he continues.
"They now have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in democracy, in engaging people, and that they are not control freaks."
Some reform campaigners fear that the Conservative plans, seen by some as an attempt to outflank the government, could have in fact make it harder for those pushing for a 100% elected peers.
Mr Lawrence-Pietroni disagrees: "The Labour MPs who have been arguing the cause for reform genuinely believe it."
He accepts that 50% would be a "significant change" from the government's original plans, but Charter88 continues to push for a House of Lords entirely elected through proportional representation.
Under the group's plans, which have yet to be unveiled in full, the House of Lords would have the same powers to delay legislation that it holds now.
And experts could be co-opted onto committees to help with specific inquiries, following the group's belief that appointing peers is by no means the best way to get knowledge and experience into the Lords.
Lord Wakeham, the Mr Fixit who headed the Royal Commission on Lords reform has argued there is simply not the calibre of candidates on offer to have a chamber of all-elected, full time peers.
The Tory peer argues that the reformed chamber would instead be filled with "fourth eleven" standard politicians - the first three elevens plumping for places in the Commons, regional and national parliaments and the European Parliament respectively.
This is just too pessimistic a view for Mr Lawrence-Pietroni.
"There are people out there that do have a level of expertise, who value public service and can bring that to bear in the second chamber," he counters.
It is hardly surprising if there is gloom about the prospects of democratic involvement when only 60% of voters bothered to turn out at the general election.
Winning the PR battle
The campaign director agrees that this is a key issue for democracy campaigners and argues part of the solution is introducing proportional representation (PR) - one of highlights of Charter88's policy wish list.
As well as giving people faith that their votes count, PR can help break the "ossified nature" of Parliament dominated by white middle-class men, he says.
"I think there is still a large battle to be won and the real barrier to PR is from Labour MPs."
Low turnouts hit safe Labour seats particularly and Mr Lawrence-Pietroni argues that growing recognition among those Labour MPs that their legitimacy was being "fundamentally undermined" could benefit the PR campaigners.
Central to boosting turnout, however, is the need to recognise that the public need to be involved in the decisions affecting their lives between elections, he suggests.
By its very efforts to encourage the public to debate constitutional issues with politicians, Charter88 is seeking to do its bit to open up those opportunities.
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