updated 3/7/2007 4:49:57 PM ET 2007-03-07T21:49:57

Legislators took an unprecedented step Wednesday toward ending an age-old tradition of allowing Britain’s non-elected elite to hold political power, backing proposals for an entirely elected House of Lords.

House of Commons lawmakers voted 337-224 in favor of developing laws to elect all members of Parliament’s upper chamber — potentially one of the most significant constitutional changes in British history.

The move, which requires new legislation, would bring the previously unelected upper house in line with similar institutions, such as the U.S. Senate.

Jack Straw, leader of the Commons, said the vote was a historic step forward and would meet with others to discuss how to proceed.

Lawmakers in both the Commons and Lords will hold future votes on the plan when the laws are proposed, which cannot happen before the next parliamentary session beginning in October.

Prime Minister Tony Blair voted in favor of a 50 percent split between elected and appointed Lords, but he did not take part in the other votes, his Downing Street office said.

Campaigners lobbying for an entirely elected second parliamentary chamber claim only Lesotho — a poor African kingdom — has a system similar to Britain’s, allowing a mix of unelected and hereditary appointees to influence laws.

A process clouded by suspicion
The process of appointing peers has been clouded by a police inquiry into allegations that Blair’s government, and the opposition Conservative Party, appointed Lords in exchange for financial support.

Blair succeeded in ejecting 600 hereditary members in 1999 — with the remaining 92 due to be removed once reforms are agreed — but he has been unable to muster broad support behind any new formula for selection. In 2003, lawmakers voted down five options for further change.

Measures voted on Wednesday could be presented to Parliament as a bill before the end of the year but must be debated in both the Commons and the Lords, and — following any amendments — put to a final Commons vote.

Some legislators fear an entirely elected Lords would present a rival to the supremacy of the House of Commons.

Long history
The House of Lords, which emerged around 700 years ago, does not make laws but has the power to amend legislation, subject to the consent of the House of Commons, or to delay the passage of legislation for a limited period.

A bitter clash between peers and Prime Minister David Lloyd George over his 1911 budget — which the Lords had threatened to veto — led to a limiting of their powers and brought the first modern call for reform.

Of 65 nations with a two-chamber parliament, 46 elect most or all representatives, according to James Graham, who campaigned for members to be elected. Of the 19 that appoint most or all second chamber lawmakers — including Britain and Canada — only five are established democracies, he said.

Britain, unlike most other democracies, appoints peers for life terms, rather than fixed periods of office.

Straw, the House of Commons Leader, proposed a 540-seat house — a reduction of around 200. Under his plans, all remaining 92 hereditary peers — members who inherit their right to be in the chamber — will be removed.

Some Church of England bishops — known as the Lords Spiritual — will remain, selected by an independent body reporting to Parliament.

For most of the chamber’s history, all those with inherited titles — created by the monarch — could take a place in the Lords, provided they were male, over 21 and citizens of Britain, the Commonwealth or Ireland. Since 1958, women and so-called life peers — mainly drawn from the ranks of retired politicians or those nominated by political parties — have also been appointed.

About 40 percent of current members are former lawmakers, which has led advocates of reform to suggest the chamber continues to exclude those without the patronage of either political leaders or the monarch.

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