Although I intensely dislike the Alternative Vote electoral system, which I believe is disenfranchising as well as disproportional, I’d be tempted to back it for strategic purposes in the referendum proposed by the coalition government. For similar strategic reasons, I would probably be prepared to support a reformed Upper House of Parliament elected using proportional representation (if, that is, we’re actually given the option of approving or rejecting it in a referendum), even though there are many alternative models for Lords reform that should be considered.
The strategic consideration is that a combination of AV for the Commons and PR for the Lords could pave the way towards a partially, and eventually fully, autonomous English parliament. I have previously outlined my blueprint for such a parliament, which involves the following:
- The House of Commons evolves into an English parliament elected using the AV+ system: constituency MPs – making around 75% of the total – elected via AV, with the remaining 25% of MPs elected using an open- or closed-list PR system
- These 25% of non-constituency-based English MPs also serve as the English-elected Senators or Peers in a reformed Upper House that serves both as a revising chamber for legislation from all the UK’s devolved national parliaments (ideally), and as a new British Parliament dealing with reserved matters such as macro-economics, defence and foreign affairs
- The English government is drawn exclusively from the constituency MPs but depends on the support of all English MPs to pass its legislation, including the non-constituency-based MPs
- The British government is drawn exclusively from the Peers elected from across the UK.
I won’t go into the details here about how the non-English Peers could be (s)elected; the arguments about whether the new Upper House / British Parliament’s revising powers would be extended to all of the new confederal UK’s national parliaments – but if they weren’t, then only English Peers should be able to influence England-only legislation in a decisive way; or about the length and spacing out of all the UK parliaments’ fixed-term sessions. I’ve covered that ground in my previous piece.
What I’m interested in here is mapping out how the creation of an AV-elected Commons, and a wholly or substantially PR-elected Lords – which may happen within the five-year term of the present government – could represent the first stage in a step-wise evolution to the type of English parliament I’ve just described. In the interim, these limited constitutional reforms could also hold the answer to the West Lothian Question, right there staring us in the face.
This is how I would set out the migration path:
- Phase 1: House of Commons elected via AV, and what I would prefer to call the ‘House of Peers’, rather than ‘Senate’, substantially elected via regional party lists (the most likely PR system to be chosen, à la the aborted Straw Plan) on a similar basis to the system used for elections to the European Parliament
- Phase 2: formation of an ‘English Grand Committee’ to debate and vote on England-only legislation in the Commons. With the likelihood that the Welsh Assembly will evolve into a full parliament with primary-legislative powers, it will become easier to demarcate England-only matters. And House of Commons procedures can be creatively evolved, with a bit of imagination and new technology, to ensure that only MPs whose constituents are directly affected by legislation enacted by the UK parliament can vote on it.
The counter-weight to the danger that an English Grand Committee would not adequately factor in the impact of English legislation on the UK as a whole could be provided by the elected Upper House, rather than non-English MPs as now (all questions of Barnett consequentiality notwithstanding). In other words, it would be up to the House of Peers, elected from across the UK, to make revisions to the England-only bills emerging from the EGC.
This could provide a more workable form of the Conservatives’ pre-election ‘answer’ to the West Lothian Question – the so-called ‘English pauses for English clauses’ option: only English MPs to debate and amend English bills at the committee stage, with all MPs allowed to vote on those bills in their second and third reading. My answer to the WLQ would be to strip non-English MPs of their rights to vote on England-only bills but to transfer those rights to the more legitimate, elected Upper House.
How extensive the new Upper House’s revising powers would be is clearly a matter for debate. In a context where the said House of Peers could revise only English and UK-wide legislation – not Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish bills – it would be clearly unfair to give the Upper House the power to make definitive changes to English laws. But the new arrangements could involve a constitutional duty to seek consensus between the EGC and the House of Peers where there was substantive disagreement on English bills, or where the Peers believed there was a genuine conflict of interest between the bills in question and the interests of the UK as a whole or of one of its other constituent parts.
- Phase Three: the EGC merges with the English elected Peers to become the EP (English Parliament). If the Phase-Two arrangements described above were successful – and if, as I believe, the fears that a partitioning of the UK parliament and legislature into English and British bits would lead to a break-up of the UK proved unfounded – then the logical and natural next step would be to move to the more integrated, confederal model for the English and British parliaments I outlined above. This would bring about a much more balanced, stable and democratic UK, with each of the UK’s constituent nations (including potentially Cornwall) recognised and represented in their own parliaments, but with a UK-wide parliament looking after matters of common interest, and ensuring that legislation from each of the national parliaments was in the common interest of the whole UK.
Why merge the English AV-elected constituency MPs and the PR-elected English Peers into a single English parliament in this way, with the English Peers doing double duty as non-Executive English MPs and UK Peers / potential members of a UK government?
- In the shorter term, while AV was used as the system for constituency elections, this would help ensure that the party composition of the English parliament was more proportional and more approximate to that of the House of Peers / British parliament. Of course, other more proportional systems could in time be adopted for the English parliament – or the Commons / EGC – but AV looks like the best deal on offer for the time being.
- It would ensure that the interests of the other parts of the UK would continue to be strongly represented within the English legislature itself, and not just in a secondary revising chamber. The English Peers / PR-elected MPs would be part of a collegiate body (the House of Peers) with a constitutional responsibility to look after the interests of the UK as a whole, while those same Peers would also be directly accountable to English voters. This would provide a strong safeguard against the risk – such as it is – that an English parliament would override the interests of the other UK nations, which is one of the main reasons why many people oppose any idea of an English parliament.
At the same time, the fact that English Peers were elected by English voters only would make them mindful of their duty to defend the interests and represent the views of English people within the British parliament and government. This dual accountability could provide the system of checks and balances needed to make a lop-sided federal or confederal UK (with one of its parts comprising 85% of its population) a viable long-term option.
This hybrid English-British parliamentary system does not, of course, preclude further constitutional innovation to either safeguard the / a continuing UK, or provide for its dissolution and the continuance of England as an independent nation, or federation with Wales and / or Northern Ireland.
For these reasons, I feel that a House of Commons elected via AV and an Upper House elected via PR contains in outline some serious answers to the West Lothian and English Questions. Hence, I would be prepared to back these limited reforms in referendums.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Lib-Con coalition government will bother to seriously ask those questions, let alone answer them