A New House of Lords

Like for most people, since the surprise calling of the 2017 UK General Election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled up with people opining on various issues. One which has caught my eye beyond the usual partisan stuff that I’m as guilty as anyone about is the idea of electoral reform.

It is perhaps unsurprising with the polls showing huge leads for the Conservatives that there has been renewed interest in electoral reform from not only LibDem supporters (whose party has in its various guises been in favour of Proportional Representation (PR) since at least 1945) and minor parties but also from Labour supporters. Not without some justification, many are uneasy that without proportionality there are many people whose votes don’t really count – if you are in a seat where one party has a huge majority of supporters, it is unlikely that voting for anyone else will make a difference (although this wasn’t the case in 1997, was not true in Scotland in 2015 and looks like it might not be the case this year). The argument goes that this knowledge that so many votes don’t make a difference to which MPs get elected also helps to make many people cynical and disengaged from the process with a large minority not even bothering to register let alone turn out to vote.

I am not in favour of moving to PR for elections to the House of Commons and never have been, even when the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system delivered large majorities for Labour. While the current campaign more than probably any other has been focused on the leaders of the main parties, at a local level there is still a lot to be said for people voting specifically for a local MP. This is something which has if anything also been emphasised in the current campaign, in particular by candidates for Labour seeking election or re-election on their personal merits, often while pointedly stating that they do not support Jeremy Corbyn as a future Prime Minister. In my own home area of Leeds North West it is also telling that the incumbent LibDem MP, Greg Mulholland, does not even mention his Party Leader, Tim Farron in any of the leaflets I’ve received about the local campaign. This is something which would be largely lost were the elections for the Commons to be conducted under a form of PR.

Another issue is the role and nature of the House of Lords. For me, the Lords is one of those peculiarities of the British Constitution which like the unwritten Constitution itself works a lot better than it ought to and it is difficult to pinpoint precisely why. An Upper House which is filled with political appointees, a few who have inherited the privilege and an assortment of senior judges and bishops has no real right to be nearly as good at scrutinising legislation and providing a counterbalance to the government and MPs as it in practice so often is. However, in a democracy it still is something which ought to be made democratic and accountable. An argument could be made for doing away with it altogether, but that would be worse than the status quo at least because the Lords has so often shown itself to be valuable in providing that balance in the system in practice.

So, here is my set of proposals, which would have the effect of both reforming the Lords and introducing an element of proportionality into the UK system of politics and government.

  • Abolish the current House of Lords and replace it with an elected Senate.
  • The Senate would be elected by PR on the basis of the share of votes cast for candidates for the Commons aggregated over a number of seats (eg for each area comprising 20 Commons constituencies, there would be 10 Senators elected on the basis of the proportion of the votes obtained by their parties in those 20 constituencies).
  • The Senate would also have a number of ex officio members. These would include the Prime Minister and all Secretaries of State (currently 21 in total – this would need to be a fixed number) and could be expanded to include the Supreme Court Justices and Bishops (as at present), perhaps the Metropolitan Area Mayors or others in defined roles if it were thought that it was worthwhile to retain some non-politicians in the Senate as occurs in the Lords.
  • Senators would be barred from subsequently being elected to the Commons and would have a mandatory retirement age (say 75) and perhaps a minimum age (say 40).

The numbers here are a little rough and might necessitate a small change in the number of MPs at the boundary review ahead of the next election, whether that involves a reduction of the total number of seats to 600 as previously proposed or a smaller change (eg moving to 640 MPs would fit neatly with my proposal of 20 Senate constituencies). Or there could be a rounding mechanism so that the current 18 Northern Irish constituencies formed a single Senate constituency, the 59 Scots ones divided in to three Senate ones and England’s 533 were either rounded up to 27 or down to 26 Senate constituencies (Wales having 40 MPs is arithmetically pleasing in this scenario!). This would lead to a Senate of 320 or 330 elected members. Unlike the Commons, it would be relatively rare for the government to have an overall majority in the Senate, which is why I think there would be a benefit in having at least the PM and Secretaries of State as ex officio members who could attend, speak and vote. This would prevent there being a permanent block from the Senate over the actions of the Commons which should remain the primary seat of government. It would also remove the need for there to be two sets of Ministers, one for each House. It would be worth considering whether a Senator appointed as a Cabinet Minister should have a reciprocal right to attend, speak and vote in the Commons – this might be a good way in a Hung Parliament to enable a minority government to operate by appointing Senators to the Cabinet.

The proposal to have 10 Senators for every 20 MPs would have the effect of substantially lowering the threshold for new and minority parties to form and get representation in Parliament. A party would only need to get 10% of the votes cast in an area to have a Senator elected. This would make it much more feasible for small parties to focus on a particular area or areas (e.g. Yorkshire First, Mebion Kernow, the Greens, UKIP) rather than having to throw all their resources into a single seat or try and spread them nationally. It would also make it more feasible if there were a schism within an existing large party for irreconcilable groups to go their separate ways without one or other side of that schism being almost inevitably doomed to failure). There would also be a good reason to vote for minority parties rather than feel that such a vote was “wasted”.

This is not too different from how the proportional element of the elections to the Scots Parliament works, except here the proportional element would be going towards a different chamber with a different, more focused remit as a revising body. What do you think?

Bored of Brexit

I’m bored of Brexit. I think most other people probably are too. It is of course the biggest task facing the government for the next few years and how it happens or doesn’t happen could have huge implications for us all. But that doesn’t stop it being quite dull. 


(apologies to Allan Ahlberg and Fritz Wegner for mucking around with this picture)

Brexit is dull for the same reasons that prior to last year’s referendum the EU was dull enough that most people didn’t really know or care very much about what being in the EU meant in any detail. Which is why so much of the debate was about simple elements like “taking control of immigration“, getting back the old midnight blue hardback passports we used to have, or whether there were other things we might or would do with the money we currently sent to the EU. That’s not to say that there weren’t better and more informed reasons for leaving or that even those things weren’t important enough to justify a vote to leave. They were certainly more compelling than arguments to stay based on things like the importance of the Single Market and Customs Union which to the majority of people might as well have been in Sanskrit for all the obvious impact they had on their lives as they are lived. 

This doesn’t mean that things like the UK’s trading relationship with the EU are unimportant. They’re incredibly important. But just as the way in which the Single Market operates, the framework of laws and regulations, the institutions involved in determining and enforcing those laws and so on were of little interest to most people prior to the referendum, I think that the immense and intricate detail of what will follow will be too. The vast majority of people are, I believe, not ultra keen on either extreme of the leave/remain debate. They’d think it wrong if the government decided to ignore the referendum and just stay in the EU and they’d think it wrong if the government ended up leaving on obviously bad terms just for the sake of leaving. Quite where the line should be drawn in between those extremes? Most don’t really know. We can have preferences on individual issues but as an overall position? Put that in the box marked “meh”. This is probably a better explanation for why the UK economy hasn’t collapsed (and indeed has grown more than forecast) than “well that’s because Brexit hasn’t happened yet, just wait and see when it does”.  It is only those at the extremes who have a clear view and for them either Brexit will always be too “Hard” or too “Soft”, depending on whether they were rampant Remainers or Leavers. 

I think where we’ll end up, boringly, is with something in between which will have those at the extremes still unhappy. We’ll be out of the EU, so those who believe that we shouldn’t under any circumstances leave will consider any form of leaving to be terrible. We will however not just rip everything up so it’ll be too soft for the most foam-speckled Ukippers.

I think it is almost certain that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK to stay (and about Brits abroad in the EU not to be repatriated) the status quo will be preserved. It is also quite likely that whatever restrictions are placed on future movement between the UK and EU they won’t be so onerous as to prevent those who are genuinely moving to work or study from being able to do so, even if it might not be quite as simple as waving a burgundy passport. If anything, I think economically there could be benefits for much of the rest of the EU if there isn’t completely free movement of people with the UK – once outside the EU, ending free movement would restrict the UK’s ability to have a competitive advantage in attracting workers from elsewhere, driving up wages and costs in poorer countries and reducing them in the UK. That’s why even with “control” over immigration, the UK probably wouldn’t want to shut its borders regardless. 

As long as we can see that the government has the power to control immigration and is using it to stop obviously harmful people coming, the actual numbers won’t matter so much any more because people will assume that the numbers coming and going are controlled. The perception will be different even if the substance is not very. In the absence of lots of new states acceding to the EU there isn’t another bow wave of EU migrants like in 2004 to come in any case. 

In other areas, I don’t think there will be any real appetite to “punish” the UK by making life hard in trade, just as I don’t think this government, or any of the ones we’ve had since 1979 would want to depart from the idea of minimising trade barriers between the UK and the rest of the world. I suspect that the Great Repeal Bill which will enshrine existing UK implementations of EU law in UK law post-Brexit will end up with a very leisurely pace of actual repeal and replacement and often strong reasons in the future to shadow what is happening at an EU level on uncontentious topics. Relatively few implementations of EU regulations by means of the power to implement using Statutory Instruments were ever put to a vote and this reflects how uninteresting they were. Their replacements will not magically become more interesting in post-Brexit Britain or Westminster. Similarly, while formally remaining in the Customs Union will probably not happen, does anybody here or in the EU really want to start putting up tariff barriers and working out what they might be? It would be easier not to bother rather than to generate some new tariffs the effects of which would not be predictably to the benefit of either side.

One of the reasons why the EU is slow at negotiating trade deals is that they need to be approved by all Member States – so putting in a tariff on say, new cars, which might benefit German car manufacturers in competition against UK ones might also inadvertently benefit German manufacturers against French ones who would suddenly find that their domestic market had less competitive constraint coming from imports from the UK and the Germans were better placed to exploit it. Nobody knows and I think, however much the Commission might want to preserve the purity of the EU and dissuade anyone from breaking ranks, the Member States will reasonably quickly conclude that it’s a game not worth playing. Similarly, in Financial Services, could anyone predict with any certainty that damaging the City of London would benefit Paris and Frankfurt equally rather than make one or other become dominant? Leaving things be would be more likely to appeal to EU national leaders than giving London a “punishment beating” and finding that it ended up harming their own country.

Now, I agree that these also sound like good reasons not to bother with changing anything so why bother leaving the EU at all? Personally I took the view that most if not all of what the EU provides can be done by the UK alone and so from an abstract perspective we don’t absolutely need to be in it. At the same time, there weren’t so many things about the EU which upset me so much that I wanted to leave in order to achieve them and that there were lots of things which I’d really rather the UK never did which they would be able to do if we did. But that is where I think there is meaning in “Brexit means Brexit”. Leaving the EU will allow for changes in the stuff that people do care about and it will make little difference in the end to the boring and specialist stuff that they never busied themselves with before and have probably already glazed over reading in the previous couple of paragraphs. It is the EU’s failure that it didn’t understand how little it needed to change to have kept the support of the UK’s population and so gave Cameron not even that. 

I’d have been more concerned about Brexit had it been pushed by a government which was likely to want to make big changes to those “boring” bits and to depart from the broadly economically liberal underpinnings of the EU to become much more protectionist and interventionist. But, thankfully, we don’t look like we’re going to get Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk anywhere near power and his concept of a “different, social Europe” is almost certainly likely to be even less appealing to the rest of the EU than any plausible actual post-Brexit Europe. If we think that getting to have relatively free access to the EU Single Market while placing restrictions on free movement of people is a difficult task then doing so while restricting free movement of capital and goods and freedom of establishment instead would be positively Herculean. 

So, while it will probably be a massive balls ache in practice for the government and civil service to negotiate the implementation of Brexit, and as an EU lawyer, one that made me shudder enough to vote for remain, it is a boring process balls ache rather than one that will make much difference to the vast majority of people. Which is why Brexit is itself boring and in particular, why those making ultra-technical legal arguments about things like the revocability of notification under Article 50 TFEU are beyond boring to anyone who is not either professionally interested or intent at all costs to prevent it from happening.

Fifteen

Fifteen years ago today, 9th February 2002, was a day that has turned out to be very memorable for me. I’m hoping today isn’t.

I drove across London to go and watch Brentford beat Bournemouth at Griffin Park with my Bournemouth supporting friend, Alan from Balham. I then went home to Docklands and toyed with the idea of just staying in as a nice home win for the Bees had already made it a good day. But I’d arranged to meet another friend, Rich, to go to a house party of a mutual friend in Earlsfield and even though it was a bit of a bother to trek back over to the other side of London, I didn’t want to bail out at short notice. So after a few pints in Clapham Junction we went on to the the party. Where I got together for the first time with the future Mrs B. The rest is history.

Today, after work, I’ll be driving back from Egham to Leeds via Cambridge. I’ll be stopping off at Cambridge to see my mum in hospital. She’s been in Intensive Care for the last 10 days with flu and pneumonia, was unconscious for the first few days, and even now the Consultants are not holding out any hopes for her recovery. When I saw her last week, she was breathing through a tube and coughing silently (the tube meant that no air went past her vocal chords). Her eyes had gone blue. I think she was aware I was there, but I can’t be sure. I think I saw her try to smile when I talked about Oli, her only grandchild.

My mum has been ill for over 20 years. Her kidneys started to fail when she was in her mid 40s, about my age (the last proper conversation we had she was pleased when I told her that I’d had a kidney function test which had come out clear). She’d never liked eating vegetables much (neither do I, neither does Oli) but a few years previously she’d cut out eating beef because of the BSE scare and moved to a largely vegetarian diet which probably put a strain on the one working kidney she had at the time (it was only much later that the renal specialists said that one of her kidneys had never worked). She had a transplant about 11 years ago but the transplanted kidney started to fail about 18 months ago and after a stroke she decided to retire from work. Being somewhat unsympathetic she used to bemoan the young kidney patients she had dialysis with who had, despite being in much better general health than her, not worked when she would come into dialysis 3 evenings a week after working full time. Last year she had a heart valve operation which was difficult enough because the drugs needed to make that work were pretty much diametrically opposed in effect to the drugs needed to stop her body rejecting her transplanted kidney. They also meant that her immune system was very weak and she had two further long spells in hospital last year fighting off infections to the heart valve. She said the best treatment she’d got during those stays was while the junior doctors were on strike as she’d see the Consultants regularly and  they weren’t cack-handed in trying to find a vein to stick in one of the many needles she had pincushioning her. Until those infections were defeated there would be no question of going back on the kidney transplant list. I shudder to think what we’d have done if we’d had to pay for all this healthcare. The doctors and nurses at Addenbrokes and Papworth Hospitals have been fantastic. I doubt I’d be insurable (to my IFA’s disappointment, even taking out new life insurance now is not realistic). And the clock was ticking because she would not be allowed on that list after the age of 70.

I’ve been prepared for her death most of my adult life. Or so I thought.

Anniversaries are only arbitrary dates that we choose to put meaning on. There is no inherent quality to 9th February. Or to Valentine’s Day (which I’ll thankfully be away for, but is coincidentally the date of my first actual date with the soon to be ex Mrs B). But they are important because by tying events to memories we preserve those memories. I can barely guess what I was doing on 8th February 2002. I’m hoping 9th February 2017 is ultimately not specifically memorable other than as the fifteenth anniversary with which I started this blog.