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When Labour (almost) threatened to abolish the House of Lords

Ever so briefly, it was official Labour Party policy to abolish the House of Lords. A resolution demanding exactly that was carried with a two-thirds majority at the 1978 conference. As the rules then stood, that qualified the proposal for automatic inclusion in the following year’s manifesto.

Indeed, in his autobiography, the late leftwing MP Eric Heffer revealed that the commitment was even included in a draft manifesto drawn up by the National Executive Committee, theoretically the party’s supreme body.

But prime minister Jim Callaghan wasn’t having any of it, and threatened to quit immediately if the policy prevailed. ‘We were therefore faced with the possibility of two elections: the general election already announced, and the election of party leader,’ Heffer relates. ‘This was sheer blackmail.’

Sheer blackmail, so naturally the left caved in to it. That was about as radical as things ever got for Labour.

True, Blair did subsequently oversee the dismissal of the majority of hereditary peers, handing more influence to those who purchased their peerages fair and square from Lord Levy.

But Britain remains, alongside Canada, as one of only two countries in the world with significant power vested in an unelected second chamber.

In democratic terms, that is an outrage. Power should reside in a unicameral elected assembly, with the necessary checks and balances provided by independently-minded representatives.

If there needs to be a second chamber at all – and I’m not persuaded, to put it mildly – it should be elected by universal suffrage.

No doubt Labour thinks that it has today succeeded in cleverly exploiting divisions both within the Coalition and within the Conservative Party, and perhaps it has. Even so, it is missing the point spectacularly.

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