Monday, 23 May 2011

Reflections on the House of Lords

Apologies for not doing this sooner, but I am currently spending 12 hours a day either at work, commuting to or from work or getting ready for work, so between that and other general tasks like eating, sleeping, and such I don’t have much time at all!

That said, we would be amiss at Britain-Votes if we did not attempt to cover the government’s proposals on Lords reform last week. So I’ve read through the entire white paper, which can be found here if you’re interested.

The reform is quite clearly attempting to bring democratic accountability to a currently unelected house which is often seen as aloof, filled with party lackeys and sometimes even corrupt. The long-time impact of the 2006 ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal has particularly undermined the Lords.

Yet, in many ways, it is easy to be hypercritical of the Lords, but what does the Lords do well, and what do we want out of an upper house.

In democracies upper houses exist to balance out the tendencies of the lower houses. Lower houses are generally directly elected democratic institutions with more power than upper houses. Upper houses are thus used to create a brake on democracy, which can be short-termist and lead to abuses of power if the public wills it. In many countries upper houses are also used to purposefully over-represent some sort of minority – typically a geographic one, with the most common form of upper house being one where federal states are represented equally to make sure the will of the largest states cannot override the will of the smallest. Such upper houses can be seen in the US, Switzerland, Australia et al.

The House of Lords has basically come to be a ‘house of experts’. It has come to be a house filled with experts in various spheres. Former cabinet ministers, constitutional lawyers, scientists, academics and more can all be found on the benches of the Lords. For example when the subject of IVF comes up the Lords can depend on the knowledge of Lord Winston, an expert in fertility science. The reforms have therefore been designed to retain as much of this as possible while introducing a majority democratic component.

In a sense the Lords goes to the heart of our system. When visiting the Commons in 2010 I was told by one of the men showing me around that Britain was a ‘talking democracy’. A democracy built on a belief in debate and argument. As a ‘house of experts’ the Lords fulfils a role in our system by giving a voice to those with the greatest knowledge.

So what are the basics of the reforms?

Overall the House will be reduced in size from 789 to 300. Being a Lord will become a full time job with a full salary and peerages would become a honour, like a knighthood. The house will not be 100% elected, it will 80% elected with a 20% unelected component (about 60 seats). The unelected component is designed to keep in some of the crossbenchers, independent peers who often have a large degree of knowledge, and will also include 12 CoE bishops (the Lords currently includes 36 ‘Lords Spiritual’).

The plan is to elect 80 peers at every general election (unless an election takes place within 2 years of a previous one). These would be three sets of 80 peers, and peers would not be able to run for re-election. With five year terms that would generally mean that peers would have one 15 year term in the Lords. That would mean that peers would not be able to be easily whipped by their parties, as a party would not be able to threaten their re-election prospects, and the hope is that a 15 year term will give them a long-term view. Additionally peers would not be allowed to run to be MPs for a period five years before until five years after their term in office, that would create a 25 year period where peers could not run to be MPs, the hope being that this will cause the Lords to attract a different sort of politician, one which would not be attracted to the usual life of a MP. So the theory is that this should all create a House that is detached from government and still independent.

The current version of the draft bill specifies that elections will take place under the Single Transferable Vote. This system is similar to AV, but in multi-member seats. It is vaguely proportional, provided the multi-member seats are big enough. Unlike what we usually think of as ‘proportional representation’ however it does not involve lists. In STV a party will run multiple candidates but voters can rank candidates however they like, including across party lines. So therefore the government needs to draw multi-member constituencies across the UK for 80 peers. As it happens we Brits already elect 70 representatives in multi-member seats by proportional representation every 5 years – when we elect MEPs to the European Parliament. However the European Parliament constituencies vary largely in size. The South East England constituency elects 10 MEPs, whereas the North East England constituency elects 3. In STV it is always best not to have constituencies that are too big because the number of candidates can get overwhelming, whereas constituencies that are too small produce disproportional outcomes.

The white paper therefore sets out a system where counties and administrative areas can shift between constituencies until each constituency in England has 5-7 MEPs, which is pretty much the STV sweet spot between too big and too small. An exception will be made for the three nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and they will be kept whole. As Northern Ireland and Wales have less population than most UK regions they will be assigned less seats than the norm, though a floor of 3 will be placed in the bill to make sure that Northern Ireland’s allocation does not get not too small.

STV’s advantages in this case is that it allows voters to vote for whatever their preference and every Lord will be able to claim a genuine mandate of their own. It will allow for the election of fringe parties and independents. Ireland, which uses STV for its national elections, consistently has the highest number of independents in its parliament in Europe.

The downside is that many people currently in the Lords are currently there precisely because they are not particularly electable fellows and STV can produce a certain personality politics as with voters having a choice within parties as well as between STV may have an effect of biasing towards the more charismatic candidates. There is evidently a chance a list system could be adopted instead and I suspect the Tories and Labour would prefer one as such a system would allow them to ‘appoint’ less easily electable members every 5 years. The Lib Dems, however, have always seen STV as the best electoral system and I would expect Clegg, who is, after all, over all responsible for the reform, to push for STV.

The Lords will not officially have any change in powers, but it is my feeling that a mostly elected Lords will show a higher willingness to act as a brake on government. The reason for this is that Lords will now have a democratic mandate of their own and can therefore claim more moral authority to the people’s will. A similar effect can already be seen in the form of Labour’s removal of the majority of the hereditary peers. By removing hereditary aristocracy the Lords came to see itself as more legitimate and has become more rebellious, so while the Lords has had no increase in powers it has become more willing to defeat the government. It is my feeling that an elected Lords will only increase this effect. Indeed a directly elected Lords is likely to undermine a couple of the conventions associated with it, such as the convention that the Lords will always back manifesto content as Lords will presumably consider themselves to be elected on a manifesto of their own, of sorts.

The reforms are planned to be phased in with the white paper suggesting different types of ‘transitional period’. As the white paper paper says, this is evolution, not revolution.

What if what you wanted WAS a revolution though? The reality is that you were never going to get it. Constitutional reforms like this – bit by bit changes inevitably must fit in with the pre-established institutions of the UK and the way our system works. A political system is not just a a series of separate parts acting independently from each other, it is a living, breathing organic structure. Inevitably a change to one part must therefore be evolutionary not revolutionary as it must fit broadly in the same vacated by what it replaces. In my view the reform proposals are a pretty good stab at replicating the current House of Lords on elected lines, and I genuinely think this is a very good proposal.

Two big questions remain, they are whether it can pass and the final details. The electoral system, the details of the transitional period, and even the House's name are still not set in stone. The white paper proposes several options. Time is somewhat of the essence, however, because the Lords can probably be expected to block the reform though I expect the Commons to pass the proposals (even if there is a significant Conservative rebellion, though I expect them to be whipped, I would expect a lot of Labour MPs to back the reform). The Lords can, of course, only block for so long before the Parliament Act can be used to force the bill through but this will all take time and the electoral commission will need some sort of head start if the first House of Lords election is to coincide with the next general election, which I’m assuming is the government’s hope. However, the Lib Dems are likely to focus strongly on the reform now that AV has failed. Indeed, while Lords reform is consistently on the agenda my feeling is that only a coalition involving the Lib Dems would give it enough steam to actually pass.

1 comment:

  1. I'm curious what you think an empowered upper chamber means for Responsible Government?

    I find having a powerful senate makes the Australian model quite messy. The Senate's unwillingness to pass the budget was the excuse the GG gave when he dismissed the Prime Minister in the 70s. Claimed a government that could not secure Supply had to fall. Yet the PM had confidence of the House.

    But in general, I don't know how you hold a government to account if a bunch of independent fearless Senators are busy blocking stuff and modifiying bills. One look at what the minority Republicans were able to do in the US between 2008 and 2010 should be a warning. Voters blamed Democrats for the lack of action, largely caused by Republican obstructionism.