Having failed to gain a stranglehold on the Commons by changing the voting system, the Liberal Democrats are aiming for an armlock on the Lords instead. Since legislation must pass through both Houses of Parliament, this will require perpetual appeasement of the Liberals, even if the Conservatives or Labour win an overall majority at the next general election.
Yet much more is at stake than the institutionalisation of third-party power by creating an upper house based on proportional representation: for we will lose the ability to improve legislation by considering amendments purely on their merits.
In the 15 years since I entered parliament, I have managed to change the law only once — when a government exceptionally allowed a free vote. But in the 15 years before I entered parliament it proved possible to do so on three separate occasions — and this was entirely because of the way the House of Lords works.
Consider the 1984 Trade Union Act. As a researcher for several peers, I could brief them on the merits of postal ballots for union elections, compared with the counting of heads at tiny branch meetings. Dozens of peers were persuaded and, despite the best efforts of government whips, an appropriate amendment was carried. Back in the Commons, the same amendment stood no chance of success because of the much tighter controls on backbenchers. Nevertheless, the government decided to offer a proposal of its own — to try making postal ballots "the norm" and to create central registers of trade union members. Four years later, this led directly to the introduction of compulsory postal ballots, as the Lords had originally proposed.
If the upper house had been predominantly elected — and especially if it had been elected on a PR list system — the initial amendment, which eventually led to the introduction of postal ballots, would never have been passed. Even more clear-cut were the changes to the Education Bill in 1986 and to the Broadcasting Bill in 1990, both of which were amended in respect of the balanced treatment of politically controversial issues.