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Reforming the House of Lords:
The Establishment strikes back

The government should have been shooting at an open goal when it promised to reform the Lords.

But, five years on, the job remains unfinished: the best club in London is still open for business.
Under a death sentence but still sitting: the Lords in action

"Things can only get better," was Tony Blair's campaign song for the 1997 General Election.

But for one institution, in May 1997 the outlook was bleak.

Video Clip VIDEO
Blackadder, BBC TV
Fat cats or dead cats? Blackadder has a cunning plan to gain a peerage.
The House of Lords, once dubbed the 'Best Club in London', looked to be under a death sentence.

The Labour party swept to power with a huge majority - and reform of the House of Lords was high on their list of manifesto promises. The hereditaries, it seemed were on their way out.

Quote Mark The House of Lords is the perfect eventide home Quote Mark

Baroness Stocks, 1970
But, five years on - and another landslide later - hereditary peers still sit in the Lords, albeit in smaller numbers than before. The reform process has stalled at the half-way stage and there must be serious doubts about whether it will ever get much further.

Secret deal

The grand project to reform the Lords began straightforwardly enough the year after Blair's first election victory. A bill to abolish hereditary peers was announced in the Queen's Speech that Autumn: historic reform was promised.

In the end, a secret deal saved some 92 hereditary peers from the chop, as the price of letting the legislation pass unscathed.

But the government got rid of the old second chamber without any clear idea of what to put in its place.

Lord Irvine
Irvine tore up the reform blueprint and started again
It tried a Royal Commission, often seen as a way of kicking a tricky problem into touch. Eventually, in November 2001, came a White Paper, promising a directly elected element of 20% in the new chamber.

Those proposals satisfied no-one, and in May 2002, the government effectively decided to rip it all up and start again.

The question of where next for the second chamber will be put to a committee of both houses of parliament. It will consider every option, from a completely elected second chamber, to a totally nominated upper house, as we have at present.

Questioning reform

Using material from the BBC's news archives, this website tells the story of how the grand project to reform the Lords hit the buffers.

Quote Mark I never vote, it only encourages them Quote Mark

We'll be asking you to think about the nature of democracy.

Why should our social “betters” have the final say in government?

Does a nominated upper house give party leaders too much power of patronage?

In fact, why do we want a second chamber at all?

This website has been designed, in conjunction with the Open University, to be read from start to finish. But you can, of course, pick whatever topic you want to begin with.

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