Britain may soon replace the House of Lords

Alongside the coming referendum on AV Britain has been promised an elected second chamber, reformers are warned to keep their eye on both.
Stuart Weir
16 August 2010

The 'Yes' team for the AV referendum is being assembled as I write. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust are in the lead with other organisations like Unlock Democracy joining in and being invited. Obviously, the campaign will concentrate on making the case for the Alternative Vote - but it will be a huge mistake for the campaign - and especially the ERS and other organisations involved, to neglect entirely the issue of elections to the second chamber that the Coalition is committed to, that will in effect replace the House of Lords.

It is not simply that the decisions on the electoral systems for both chambers are interlinked. There is an urgent need to create and set in motion now a realistic strategy to ensure that the best possible choice for elections to the second chamber is made. The 'Yes' campaign may very well fail, and it would be unforgiveable if there wasn't a strong campaign for the right choice to replace the Lords already up and going come next May.

The ERS and Compass made a dreadful mistake when they agreed with Downing Street in the days of Gordon Brown to give their backing to a referendum choice that was only between first-past-the-post and AV. Both because it the choice was so restricted and also because it did not build in genuine public participation. We are now stuck with the consequences and Labour are in a bind without the legitimacy to insist on a  more democratic process.

On the second chamber, which is however a half of our Parliament, the coalition has so far agreed only that the election system will be either the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or an Open List PR system.  STV is very much the more open and pluralist of the two systems and is of course the Lib Dems' first choice, as well as being the system that the ERS has long campaigned for.  It is anyone's guess whether or not the Lib Dems will hold out for STV, a system that most Conservatives cannot stomach; So there has to be a campaign that will stiffen Lib Dem resolve at all levels of the party.

But the choice between the two systems is not necessarily the key issue; Open List PR does at least give voters the ability to choose between different candidates of the same party as well as between the parties. In my view all organisations which care about the quality of elections in the UK should also put pressure on the Lib Dems; not only to insist on STV, or failing that Open List PR, but to insist that the coalition chooses the Sainte Legue (SL) system for allocating seats to candidates and parties once the votes have been counted. SL is one of two main 'divisor' systems for the allocation of seats. 

For elections to the European Parliament, Jack Straw not only went for Closed List PR; but also the D'Hondt (DH) divisor system which notoriously benefits larger parties. The expert authors of the recent (and admirable) British Academy report on Choosing an Electoral System in the UK, warned, 'it should never be used unless designers want a bias to the large, which is difficult to justify in a democracy'.*

Straw didn't find it that difficult, but bias towards the two large parties is deeply embedded in our political tradition.

The British Academy authors gave examples of the bias that ensues. For example, in the 2009 Euro-elections, the Conservatives would have won fewer seats (21 instead of 25) using the SL rather than DH system, and the Greens would have picked up seven instead of only two.   But my argument here is not posited on doing the Conservatives down - in  year in which Labour may be riding high, they too would benefit unfairly under DH.  My argument is that the electoral system for the second chamber should  not be biased in favour of either of the two largest parties.


Choosing an Electoral System, by Simon Hix, Ron Johnston and Iain McLean, is available free from the British Academy and can be downloaded as well.

Read more about the AV referendum in OurKingdom's Referendum Plus section.

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