While we are stuck with big government, an important check on the power of the executive is an independent second chamber. Although the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords is much derided, it is noticeable that their Lordships have provided much more substantial and well-reasoned opposition to the worst excesses of the current government than has been provided by the Commons. This is quite significantly related to the fact that many of their Lordships do not owe their positions to conformity with party policy.
Jack Straw's leaked proposal for reform of the Lords would undermine that independence. He proposes that half the peers should be appointed and half should be elected, as though this is a compromise. Indeed, much of the debate seems to consider that there are only two options: appointment or election, and that the only question is what balance there should be between the two. This, indeed, is the quality of the opposition parties' contribution to the debate.
Is there really no third option - one that brought people into the Lords on some basis other than party association? For the one feature that both appointment and election have in common is that they are party-political. Party bosses will do their best to choose their most loyal servants, rather than the most radical and awkward thinkers, for the appointed positions. And those with elected seats in the Lords will be as dependant on the political fortunes of their party as are the MPs in the Commons. The result will be a significant extension of the control of the executive over the second chamber. It will cease to be the check on government that we need, particularly as ever-more powers are centralised to Whitehall. Fiddling with the proportions that are appointed or elected will not much affect this calculation.
Why can we not have a representative Lords, in a different sense to the Commons? Why cannot the Lords be made up of representatives nominated by significant groups in the country: the various religions, the various business sectors (large and small, town and country), the professions, public sector employees, trades union representatives, academics, pensioners, youth, arts, sports, minorities etc. Let's have the Lords as the collection of the great and the good, as recognised by people who are best-placed to assess their skills - the people in the same line of work, or sharing the same experiences in society. That would both maintain the position of the House of Lords as the chamber where debate is more measured and less partisan than the Commons, and strengthen it by bringing in a wider range of backgrounds and experiences, so there will always be people with direct understanding of the likely impact of legislation on any sector of society.
It would be better that there were fewer powers for the second chamber to check. But whilst the tentacles of central government remain so widely-spread, it will be particularly important that the House of Lords remains independent of party-political control.