Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson Reuters

The British House of Lords once enjoyed equality with the House of Commons, but this ended with the Parliament Act of 1911. When Labour came to power after the Second World War the powers of the House of Lords were further weakened and peers for life were appointed alongside the hereditary peers.

The body was still prized as a forum for intelligent discussion and for tweaking the language of government bills that had been passed hastily by the House of Commons, but needed some redrafting. The ability of the House of Lords to delay legislation for year sometimes availed to torpedo a problematic law.

The life peerage system was abused by both major parties to reward loyalists and major donors. The Liberal Democrats campaigned on the issue of reforming the House of Lords and part of the coalition agreement dowry was to grant them their wish. In return, the Lib Dems are pledged to support parliamentary boundary changes that will help the Conservatives.

The basic idea is to have a British equivalent of the Senate and have the upper body reduced in size to around 300 members with 15 year terms.

The idea is now encountering pushback. Some members of Commons fear that an elected upper house will compete with the lower house (the bill now says these will be part time senators who will be paid 300 pounds each time they show up). Others claim that such a serious constitutional change should not be decided by a parliamentary majority, but should be submitted to the people in a referendum.

Some object to the idea of using proportional representation as the voting system for the upper house. The Liberal Democrats tried to get proportional representation adopted for the House of Commons and failed.

Other Conservatives see the entire issue as a distraction from the main business of the coalition - namely, combating the crippling recession. This is reminiscent of criticism leveled at the Obama administration for investing so much time and political capital in the health care issue, when jobs should be the main priority.

London's Mayor Boris Johnson, who has made no secret of his ambition to replace Prime Minister David Cameron as both the head of the Conservative party and as Prime Minister, called the proposal "tidy-minded Lib-Dem nonsense" and predicted that “It would create a new, grandiose, expensive and unnecessary class of political hacks”.

As Mayor Johnson cannot be touched by parliamentary discipline, but Conservative junior ministers are more vulnerable, the revolt against the measure may fizzle.

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