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Proposed House of Lords reform: nearly, but not yet democratic

The Coalition's draft Bill on reform to the House of Lords is a vast improvement on previous proposals. Here are suggested improvements for the creation of a democratic, coherent and wholly elected upper house
Patrick Dunleavy
13 July 2011

This is the second piece in a wide-ranging OurKingdom discussion on the role of the upper House, its relationship to the Commons, and the case for reform. We began with a transcript of a speech by Laura Sandys to the Commons, arguing that Lords reform would strengthen Parliament as a whole. This piece by Patrick Dunleavy is followed by an argument for a second chamber selected by sortition.

The coalition government’s draft Bill on Lords reform shows tremendous progress in coming up with a workmanlike road to reform. Nick Clegg now has a set of reform proposals that are four fifths of the way to being a coherent, principled and genuinely worthwhile reform – and one that meets the pledges made to the electorate at the 2010 general election by the top three political parties. My table below shows how far the Coalition’s thinking has come, and yet what further movement it still needs to make to achieve a fully democratically accountable upper chamber.

Table 1: Comparing the status quo, the government’s draft bill and the changes needed for a fully democratic Senate

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The essence of the government proposal is to elect the vast bulk of the reformed chamber in large constituencies, using the regional seats already employed for electing the UK’s members of the European Parliament. One of the options still for debate between the coalition parties is whether the new Senate should be 100 per cent elected, or only 80 per cent elected members, with the remaining fifth appointed by a non-partisan commission. The proposals for electoral arrangements strongly resemble the detailed schema for electing the Lords that Helen Margetts and I set out for Lord Wakeham’s disappointing Royal Commission on the Lords in 1999, which ignored all elections to create the current all-appointed House.

The draft Bill proposes to create a strongly static balance of parties in the new house by proposing that members are only elected a third at a time, which in turn means that to get proportional elections a large Senate of 300 plus members is needed. (Given the size of the smallest UK regions, you cannot elect much less than 100 members at a time and still represent a fair balance of votes in each region). Each member would be elected once only and would never be able to stand for re-election, that is, a single term limit. This is a highly unusual requirement, found in very few other legislatures across the world.  The main case is the Mexican legislature, where single term limits are widely blamed for corrosive corruption, because a legislator who cannot be re-elected has nothing to lose from being corrupt.

The government proposes that elections will take place on the same day as general elections, because that will maximize the numbers of people who will vote in the new Senate elections, a strong democratic rationale. However, the top three parties (Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) also know that the general election context is the most favourable for them. In particular, it tends to strongly suppress votes for the UK’s smaller fourth, fifth and so on parties – whose votes would clearly be higher if Senate election took place on a fixed four year term, like those for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Authority.

Electing on general election days means that the government’s draft bill cannot specify exactly how long a member of the new Senate will sit for. If a general election takes place inside of two years, then they do not trigger an election of the next wave of senators due to be replaced. But once a Parliament has gone beyond two years, that counts for this purpose. And of course each Parliament can only last a maximum of five years. So depending on how things work out, an unlucky senator could sit for as little as six years, while a lucky one (who lasts through three five-year Parliaments) could be there for a decade and a half. This would be a hugely long term during which senators never have to return and face the voters who chose them, and are not removeable in any way through popular action. (In fact, if a tranche of senators got really lucky and interspersed five year Parliaments with a couple of near-two-year short Parliaments at the right times, they could stay in the upper chamber for almost 19 years).

The problems here are obvious, but they are also easily solved. The key thing is to reduce the size of the Senate to its smallest feasible scale, which is around 180 to 220 members – which minimizes both the number of elected politicians and the costs of an elected upper house. The chamber can also be very safely elected a half at a time (not in thirds), because the government has accepted the need for a proportional representation election. And under any realistic scenario, in today’s multi-party politics two PR elections in the UK are never likely to result in an upper house with a clear overall majority for any one party.

Electing members in halves also means that the term of office for senators would fall to between four years (if they held office in two short-Parliaments only) and ten years (if they held office for two full-term Parliaments). This reduction also opens up the chance to get rid of the highly objectionable single term limit, and to opt for the term limit widely seen as optimal in US politics and in academic analyses also – namely two terms. That means that senators would have the chance to be re-elected once, but they could not go on and on, as MPs do, and so would not be professional career politicians and nothing else.

In terms of the electoral system to be used the government’s draft Bill suggests that the single transferable vote (STV) could be used in the large regional constituencies, and technically this is (just) feasible. However, there are three highly compelling reasons not to go down the STV route, and  instead to opt for the government Bill’s alternative option, which is an open List PR system where people cast a single X vote for the candidate they prefer from lists offered by the parties. The first reason is that this is far simpler for voters to operate and to count, and a version of List PR already works well for the UK’s European Parliament elections. The second reason is that if Senate elections are held on the same day as general elections, having two X vote elections would be strongly preferable for voters – while mixing up numerical voting with STV and X voting would be highly confusing. Finally, of course, voters have just strongly rejected numerical preference voting for AV in the May 2011 referendum, so that the Liberal Democrats would be well advised not to try again with STV.

The only other change needed is for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to take their courage in their hands and to insist at their party conference in September that only a 100 per cent elected Senate will be democratically credible and acceptable for public opinion. An 80 per elected upper house would undermine the whole point of elections by creating a completely unaccountable and irremovable sub-set of legislators, again opening the way for the taint of corruption and social exclusion that has so disfigured the Lords over many decades.

This piece was originally published on LSE's British Politics and Policy blog.

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