Hey Student!

The cost to students of going to university has been a big political issue at least since tuition fees were increased to £9k a year by the coalition government. It was less hotly contested previously when fees were lower, it barely made a dent in the popularity of Blair’s government that it went back on its promise not to introduce fees and a pledge to abolish them didn’t sweep Michael Howard into Number 10 in 2005. But this year, abolition of tuition fees was one of the big policies which helped Jeremy Corbyn to attract large numbers of young supporters and activists in the General Election (even if I think the more electorally significant appeal was to the parents of children who would be going to university in the next few years). The popularity of this is a real phenomenon, albeit one based on some “aspirational”, or delusional, thinking, so I’d like to propose a more practical and immediately achievable alternative to address many of the underlying concerns.

Do we have a problem with tuition fees and student loans?

It is unsurprising that the idea of taking on at least £27k of debt for a three year degree, not to mention up to another £33k of debt if entitled to the highest level of maintenance loan to fund living expenses, will fill many with horror if they look at those numbers in isolation. In the context of making bold and clear promises, hitting out at those levels of debt will always be popular. That (as so often), the reality is more complicated, is easily lost. So it is easy to dismiss the fact that the introduction and subsequent increases in tuition fees have rather than reduced the numbers applying for and going to university, actually been accompanied by those numbers rising. Similarly, the proportion of applicants and students from the least well-off backgrounds has risen, in contrast with the fall seen in Scotland where the Scots Government abolished tuition fees for Scots and EU students (other than those from elsewhere in the UK). While nobody says that raising tuition fees causes more to want to study, however counterintuitive it might seem, it cannot be said definitively that it has deterred substantial numbers. As something approaching the 50% of young people who Blair, before being elected in 1997, said he wanted to experience higher education are now doing so, even if the costs do deter some, there is a question as to whether having much more than 50% of young people going to university is beneficial.

Yet, the issue remains. So at least politically, there has to be a consideration of whether the current system is the best one and if not, whether there are alternatives which would be an improvement. One of those might be simply to abolish tuition fees and to bring back maintenance grants at a cost of some £12 billion a year. But even that manifesto promise from Labour started to unravel sufficiently that shortly before the General Election they mooted the possibility of writing off all past student debt. I think that logically this did need to be done because merely abolishing fees for students starting their courses in 2018 would itself create a huge cliff edge of unfairness which would have hit all those who had by the accident of having been born a couple of years earlier, continued to have been liable for loans which were being portrayed as manifestly unfair. All those students who tirelessly campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn to become PM would on graduation discover that what they’d actually done was to hamper their own lives for years to come. Can you imagine being a fly on the wall as a manager, graduated in 2017 with £60k of debt, repayable at 9% of their income above £21k a year for the next 30 years and seeing their income tax going up, gets asked for a pay rise in 2022 by the debt-free graduate trainee they’re supervising? Can you imagine their face when that trainee gazumps them on buying a flat in 2024 after they’ve managed to save a deposit which the manager will need another couple of years to get? Of course the natural next step after abolition of student loans for the future would have to be to wipe out past debts if you didn’t want either to ignite intergenerational warfare or rely on pure altruism!

That possibility was described by the Shadow Chancellor in an interview on BBC1 with Andrew Marr as “an aspiration”, as the cost of doing so is estimated at £100 billion. Some Conservatives gleefully leapt upon this as a “gotcha” moment where they could use this to say “guys, they lied to you, they never really meant to do it, you were duped into supporting them!”. I’m not so sure. While an aspiration is not as good as a manifesto promise, and a manifesto promise itself can be conveniently watered down or indeed reneged upon if circumstances allow (as with the original introduction of fees), it is not nothing. Much of Labour’s appeal, even before Corbyn, but particularly since, comes from the feeling that they care. That they really “give a stuff about stuff” and will always be aiming to do nice things even if they can’t always deliver them. Rather than destroy the argument on student finance, McDonnell’s admission doubled down on it. Many will have seen it as Labour moving further than its manifesto promise of free tuition to a future, at some point, but one which Labour would be working towards because it was its aspiration, in which those burdened with past debts would also be forgiven them. I don’t think it entirely fanciful that some might even see that as a very good argument for getting them in as soon as possible so that they can start working towards that aspiration quickly. One of the blows from Cameron’s Conservatives in 2015 which hit was that Miliband’s Labour didn’t get aspiration. That Corbyn’s Labour in 2017 has aspirations which chime with so many is not a telling criticism of it!

No, the real criticism of this entire line of policy is not that it is aspirational but that it is delusional.

This is where the realities can and should be set out. Not to knock the underlying idea that many in society instinctively find the notion of students graduating with £60k of debt unattractive. But to look at the practicality of the aspiration as set out by Labour. The impact it would have on people.

At no point in the future is it conceivable that adding £100bn onto public spending to benefit those who have already graduated and started to acquire the benefits of a university degree anyway would be anywhere near a priority for a government. That’s more than the annual budget of the NHS. The idea that next year and every year thereafter it would be a good idea to spend £12bn on paying the fees for half the population to go to university and providing many of them with their living expenses should be seen as ludicrous. That’s the same as increasing disability benefits by more than 25%, housing benefits by 40% or quadrupling unemployment benefits. There would also be other aspects of education where such an increase in funding would benefit more disadvantaged children, particularly in Early Years. Although participation in higher education now stands at about 25% of those from the least advantaged backgrounds, students are still much more likely to come from better off families so making university free instead of increasing welfare benefits is not in any way progressive or fair. Even if the policy were to be enacted in addition to increasing welfare benefits, social care, school and early years education, etc, the point is that there would be more of a case for not doing it at all and putting that £12bn into those other areas. Being churlish I’d note here that Labour weren’t even proposing to do all those things – it was striking that they did not promise to increase welfare in their manifesto, at best it was another “aspiration”.

The other delusion is that abolishing tuition fees would be necessary to reflect the fact that having an educated population benefits us all. That is undeniably true and if the current system were such that students alone bore the cost of their degrees, there would be some merit in rebalancing things so that there the general public paid a part. However, the reality is that the entire student finance system in England and Wales has been designed with the assumption that a significant proportion, up to around a third, of students will not repay the entirety of their student loans by the end of the 30 year period after which the debt is written off. What this means is that a significant proportion of the amounts borrowed by students to pay for tuition and maintenance is actually paid for by general taxation. The system already accounts for the broader social benefit of an educated population by subsidising those students who don’t earn enough over the course of early to middle parts of their careers. And it does so by transferring the money immediately into the universities they attend, rather than slowly over the decades. Which is one of the reasons why Scots universities have the free places for Scottish students rationed. The Scots government pays about £7k a year to its universities per place. Of course those universities will be keen to expand provision to take English, Welsh and Northern Irish students who will attract fees of £9k a year. Indeed, the difference between those two fee levels is probably a good indicator of the additional public funding available from central government for universities on the basis of the expected repayment rates of loans.

Another point which this leads on to is that student loans are very odd types of loan (for detail on how the loans work see this link). The discussion tends to make it look as if student loans are like personal loans or mortgages. Obviously there will be horror at the idea that a 21 year old can be expected to start out in the adult world with £60k of something like credit card debt. But, student loans aren’t like that. It would in theory be possible to take out a personal loan or a mortgage which you didn’t have to make repayments for if your income dropped below £21k, but only at huge cost (it would be an insurance product something like PPI…). In practice, nobody would lend on the basis of having no idea whether an individual would ever earn enough to repay and without any particular concern if they earned too little to make repayments from time to time over 30 years. The amount repayable monthly is also independent of the amount actually borrowed. So a student doing a 3 year course who was not entitled to a maintenance loan could borrow £27k while one doing a 5 year course with a maintenance loan could borrow £100k and when they graduate, both will make identical repayments if they earn the same amount of money. There has been some disquiet at the applicable interest rate having been increased to 6%, but the effect of this is to reduce the proportion of high earning graduates who are able to repay quickly, it makes no difference at all to those lower earners who would never have repaid in full at the previous lower rate of interest.

The only difference comes in how long they carry on making those repayments. While they are called loans, they’re really much more like a graduate tax, right down to being deducted from gross pay in employees’ payslips. Maybe the biggest delusion of all is therefore that students are funded by loans.

I said earlier on that having aspirations is not to be criticised in itself. The other element to this is that I don’t think you can credibly criticise aspirations, or even the delusions I set out, without having an alternative which can address the problems more realistically and practically. One approach might be to say, actually, the current system does things just right, but however misguided or even delusional some of the criticisms of the current system might be, the reality is that many people find it bad and are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise. Not everyone who disagrees with a position does so purely out of ignorance which merely requires the facts to be set out, whereupon they’ll go “oh, no, I can see I was wrong”. So, maybe…

It would be better to abolish student loans and replace them with a graduate tax

Now, I’m a Conservative, so I’m not normally one to favour proposing new taxes, but hear me out here. I also don’t like “stealth taxes” so I think there’s a strong case for transparency. As what we have with the current system of higher education finance is in effect a 9% tax on the income above £21k of all graduates why not just replace the loans with a clear tax? Without making any other changes at all, this could in principle have the effect of abolishing tuition fees and funding grants on the same criteria as those currently in place for maintenance loans. The same amount of public funding from general taxation as is currently used to enable the Student Loans Company to write off debts after 30 years could be applied to ensure that universities continued to get the £9k of funding needed to provide their courses. It is even possible that current student loans could be written off and their repayments replaced by liability to the tax. Although that may raise some additional questions depending on how far back to take it – it could be seen by those who took out loans going back to the 1990s who have repaid them or nearly done so as unfair if applied to the entirety of the Student Loan Company book of debts so perhaps the sensible cut off would be for loans for courses starting the year the fees were raised to £9k.

The precise percentage at which the tax should be levied would need to be determined, as well as how long it should be applied, ie just for 30 years, or until State Pension Age is reached. The latter would allow for the percentage to be reduced, providing an immediate cash terms benefit to new graduates and would be administratively simpler. But overall, the aim would be for the tax to cover the costs of higher education as they stand without requiring cuts to other budgets or increases in other taxes.

Apart from being more transparent, a graduate tax of this sort would also remove, to the extent that it exists, the possibility that a young person might be put off applying to university by the idea of taking on debt. I would be quite surprised if many young people make career choices at school based on the level of taxation they are likely to incur in the future. Are there any 17 year olds who decide against applying to read Law with the aim of becoming a solicitor by the fact that if they practice in a big City firm they’ll be paying the 45p rate of tax in their 30s? Or who opt for nursing over medicine because they’re less likely to be hit by the 40p rate? I’d be surprised if anything more than a small minority of employed adults could even say what rate of National Insurance they pay let alone that they thought about the different rates applicable when they were still at school. Income taxes, of which the graduate tax would be one, are, for good or ill, something that people only really think about and worry about (if at all) once they apply to what they are actually earning at the time.

This also leads on to another benefit. As a tax, the level of the tax could be varied based on the actual needs of universities, students and society. Those paying the tax would have a voice in this, so there could be an informed political debate over time as to what and how much should be paid. If there were a majority who thought grants and bursaries should be increased (or in the case of nursing, reintroduced), there would be a clear mechanism for doing so and they’d need to win support for increasing the graduate tax. If on the other hand, there were a majority who thought that eg certain subjects were not suitably valuable to society to merit being funded through their taxes or that it would be a good idea if certain post-graduate courses should also attract funding, that too could be passed. Debate over higher education would become more informed by what the public were willing to bear in reality rather than in abstract (“of course it would be great if everyone could spend 3 years doing whatever they fancy for free, how dare you try to make learning about money, consider the lilies in the field?”). But the pre-fees situation of “why should the bin man pay taxes to pay for the rich kid to swan around studying Art History?” would no longer have any force because the vast bulk of the costs would be borne by high earning graduates and it would be much clearer that the bin man’s contribution in taxes would be going to the general benefit of having an educated population which supplied good quality doctors and teachers (etc).

Now with Brexit, there is the ability to design a higher education funding system which is not based upon an expectation that it will have to be made available on identical terms to students from 27 other EU states which meant that loans were enforceable against foreign students who left the UK after graduating whereas a tax would not have been. Perhaps the time has come for a graduate tax. Doing this while maintaining the funding going to universities, providing living expense support to students from poorer backgrounds, possibly reducing the amounts actually deducted from the pay packets of graduates and extending the benefits of all this to past graduates and current students without requiring cuts to public spending or increases in general taxation strikes me as not just an aspiration, but something which could be done in reality and soon. 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on General Election 2017

First off, I have learned that I need to give up on making predictions about elections. After thinking Ed Miliband would win a majority in 2015, right up until the exit poll last week I was pretty sure the Conservatives would win a 100 seat majority in the 2017 General Election. Unlike in 2015, this was not just based on the media, polls and pundits but also on my experiences helping the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Leeds North West, Alan Lamb (pictured below with the victorious Labour candidate, Alex Sobel, at the count in Leeds Civic Centre, a little before the formal declaration).

Apart from a small amount of token campaigning during the 1992 election while I was a student this was the first General Election I had taken an active part in. That was in the safe Labour seat of Oxford East and at a time when the expectation of an overall win was so low that the Oxford University Conservative Association hadn’t even organised an event to watch the coverage of the results, let alone a party to celebrate the possibility of a win. When the 2017 election was called, a victory looked much more likely, even though coming from third in Leeds North West itself not particularly so. Not that it was entirely out of the question on paper – back in 2015, had there not been tactical voting by those who voted Conservative in the local elections here on the same day to support the LibDem, Greg Mulholland, who’d campaigned on the basis of “don’t let the two Eds destroy what we’ve achieved with the economy”, and instead had voted Conservative in the General Election too, the difference between the three main parties would have been a mere 1200 votes.

I’ll not go too much into the minutiae of the data here or nationally – that’s being pored over by many people far more expert than me and will be filling newspapers and articles for months to come. Instead I’ll share some of the things I learned from being closer to the actual action.

  • People are nice

One of my friends had commented that he expected that going round leafleting and speaking to people on the doorstep for the Tories would mainly involve me spending the day being told to eff off. In practice, that did not happen at all, the nearest being a handful of people (out of about 1500 houses I visited) handing their leaflet back or saying “no thank you” (and a couple of those added “nothing personal, I just never vote”).

There is also a problem about people being nice. It means that their natural politeness makes them say what they think you want to hear. Some people are keen to have an argument or to vent their frustration at you for your party, but most know that those things aren’t really your fault and you can’t do much about them. So we all rub along with people who come to our door and don’t pick a fight. This is why things like knocking up on the day of an election to persuade people to come out and vote right now are effective – those who are wavering are unlikely to be so rude as to say no and at that very moment, not saying no means that they only have to walk a couple of hundred yards to go along with you to the polling station.

  • People pay a lot more attention to what they’re voting for than they’re often credited with- policies matter a lot

From the discussions I had on the doorstep, it was clear that lots of people had actually read the leaflets they’d received and had paid some attention to the main points of the manifestos as they’d been presented in the media. Unfortunately this was a bit of a negative for a Conservative, because the weaknesses in the manifesto and how it had been presented were picked up on (in particular the proposals for social care and the withdrawal of universal free school meals which had widely been understood to be a complete abolition of them for everyone). Worse still, where there were good explanations to give, the usual response was “well why didn’t they just say that then?”.

This shows the importance of having a good and positive story to tell. While there were many serious holes that could be picked in the policies which Labour had in their manifesto, those policies were popular and easy for people to understand would, if brought in, provide them with things they liked and wanted. As I’ve blogged before, the NHS has been very important for my family as my mother has been seriously ill for most of the past 20 years and has spent about half of the past year in hospital so rewarding the doctors and nurses who work for the NHS is a good thing and something I’d support where possible. Merely (as unfortunately some Conservatives too easily do, including disappointingly  Theresa May on the Leaders’ BBC Question Time programme) saying it is impossible without a “magic money tree” is not a good look. There are serious and real practical problems about how to balance out increased spending on the NHS while making the whole economy function but those cannot and should not be reduced to unattractive soundbites which reinforce the stereotype of Conservatives not caring.

The reality is that everybody (apart from the tiny minority of ultra-libertarians) would like to see public services maintained and improved. Last summer, when I went to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership re-election rallies, I was irritated by the implicit narrative that only Labour cared. This was continued to the extent of the speaker introducing Corbyn at an event in Manchester during this election saying “I want a leader who gives a toss about stuff”. After all the work to stop being the “nasty Party” (ironically coined by Theresa May herself) under Cameron, it is not an improvement to let it stick in people’s minds that we’re now the “don’t give a toss about you Party”.

My personal view is that despite having apparent costings set out, the numbers for spending and raising revenue in the Labour manifesto were unrealistic and could not be achieved in practice. This would have meant that the tax increases proposed would not have yielded the money which apparently neatly paid for the spending increases, so those increases in spending would not have in fact materialised, while at the same time, they’d have damaged the economy to make future prospects for raising the money to pay for such things even less likely. Regardless of whether objectively the Coalition government of 2010-2015 succeeded in striking the right balance between raising revenue, spending it in the right places and cutting or limiting increases in the right things, the successful and positive message of the 2015 campaign of having a “Long Term Economic Plan” communicated this response to promises focused on just spending a lot more on all the things everyone likes. But having made a break from not just the approach to Brexit of David Cameron’s time as PM but also apparently the overall approach to government and the economy under him, there was a vacuum in the Conservatives’ economic message in the 2017 election. It is perhaps no surprise in this context that the Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking in any numbers and the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was conspicuously absent from the national campaign.

It did not have to be that way. The most interesting part of the Conservative Manifesto was its introductory section which spoke very clearly of a belief in the “good that government can do”. That could have been the platform for policies which were set out and explained as good in a persuasive way. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Whereas Labour were relentless in promoting themselves as “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Conservative message ultimately seemed like “Not for the Any”.

  • Most people are not very partisan or can put their party preference to one side

Whether they were primarily supporters of Labour or the Conservatives, I only heard one person have anything bad to say about Greg Mulholland (and he’d voted for him anyway because he didn’t want Labour to win). Everyone else was quick to say that they’d appreciated what a visible, approachable and active local MP he was, even if they had reasons for supporting one of the other candidates this time. Similarly, I met a pensioner who proudly pointed to the signs he’d put up in his local community with his Conservative councillor to make it a “no door to door sales zone” who also said that he’d only in the last week gone for a pint in the pub with Mulholland.

  • Negative personal campaigning only works if it is a surprise

For me, there are several aspects of Corbyn’s history and preferences which would make the idea of him being Prime Minister horrific. Regardless of whether he believed he was making a genuine contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland, I think that inviting convicted IRA terrorists to have tea with him in Parliament only days after other IRA terrorists had killed five people at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and hoped to murder the Prime Minister was a terrible thing to have done (as indeed the Labour leader at the time, Neil Kinnock said publicly). Ditto for his willingness to share a platform with people from Hamas and Hezbollah and to use “inclusive language” in describing them as friends. That contrasts with his refusal to share a platform with Cameron when he was notionally campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and so meant to be on the same side. If you can be on the same side as terrorists whose violent methods to secure something you want by peace, you really ought to be able to stand alongside the Prime Minister of your own country when both urging people to vote to Remain in the EU. Related to his views on Palestine is the fine line between his opposition to the actions of Israel and the tolerance and support for anti-semitism which has reared its head among a significant section of his supporters.

But, all this and more is known and has been known by the public since at least Corbyn’s initial campaign to become leader. He’s been elected and re-elected as leader in that time. The only real conclusion on this that I can reach following the election result is that many people simply do not care very much about them, or at the very least are willing to accept very generous interpretations of his motivations in doing them. Much like at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American voters were able to vote for Donald Trump even though he had provided multiple, recent, examples of views and behaviour which many others there and around the world thought appalling. These negatives have all already been priced in and do not reduce support. If anything, they might increase support among those who think it unfair to throw personal criticisms at their favoured candidate. Anything of this sort will therefore not have any adverse impact on Labour (or positive impact for anyone else) unless new and surprising because not of a piece with the stuff we already know. Short of Corbyn having acquired his £1m house in Islington by exercising his right as a council tenant to buy it at a discount and then released some equity to allow him to buy shares in Royal Mail, I’m not sure what would be in this category. Let it lie.

  • Money is not the big issue for campaigns, people are

Leaflets are cheap. Even ones which are posted through Royal Mail. The £12000 or so spending limit locally is very ample to cover sending at least half a dozen publications to everyone in a seat, and on top of that can be added the communications sent out from the parties on a national basis. What money can’t buy is having enough people to deliver, to go and talk to people and to remind them to turn up to the polling stations on the day itself. That’s where having lots of members and active supporters makes a huge difference.  But it is not just in the month or so of an election that this is important – it is needed the rest of the time too. Having councillors who know their part of a constituency well and have spent the previous few years regularly going around and listening to people and helping them with their problems helps to target the messages you send out and to identify those who agree, those who can be persuaded and those who might not normally support your party but trust you personally.

A personal example of this was from my time living in Headingley where I’d had a grumble on twitter about my street not getting Brown Bins for garden waste. One of the local Labour councillors got in touch quickly to try and sort it out. We’ve since had friendly exchanges on twitter and finally met up and had a nice chat at the count. If I still lived in Headingley, I’d vote for him, particularly as in the 8 years I lived there and the 4 since moving one ward away, the Conservatives have only ever put up “paper candidates” in the ward (ie someone who has been nominated and appears on the ballot but does not in fact send out any materials or do any campaigning). Whatever the appeal of national policies or even the quality of the candidate for Parliament for the wider constituency, that counts for a lot when it comes to translating national appeal into the local action of voting.

  • Brexit

Leeds NW voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but Brexit was barely an issue locally. This might have been surprising in the context of an election which was supposedly called in order to give Theresa May a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, but as there is little detail about the specific choices to be made and the detail of the differences between the Parties on it, not so surprising.

The LibDems’ national policy of opposing Brexit and seeking a second referendum barely impacted on their vote in the one ward where they sent out leaflets about this (Headingley) – they didn’t even mention it in other wards where there were more pro-Brexit supporters or in that case the fact that Mulholland had defied his party’s position in Parliament to abstain from the votes on triggering Article 50. Hardly anyone that I spoke to mentioned it, let alone raised any detailed points or favoured “hard” v “soft”. The 3,000 who voted UKIP in 2015 largely seemed to vote Labour this time. I think at least locally, I’m not alone in just wanting it to be got on with as that is what we have agreed to do as a nation.

  • Everybody matters and nobody can be taken for granted

This might sound a bit trite, but one of the things which pollsters and pundits like to do is to segment populations into different categories – by age, class, whether they voted for Brexit, favourite TV programme, whatever. Certainly some segments of society can feel that they are not sufficiently listened to so will respond if directly addressed. It is no illusion that Labour were very good at enthusing and motivating younger voters, but even in a seat where there are a lot of students, it is too easy to put Alex Sobel’s win squarely in the hands of the students he persuaded to turn out to vote (as indeed he did in his speech at the declaration where he said his win was a sign that students should never again be described as apathetic).

It is true, from my experience at the count sampling the vote in several of the Headingley polling districts, that Labour had pretty much cleaned up in this demographic. Spotting Conservative and LibDem votes in the piles of ballots for Headingley was dispiriting – in some cases I’d tallied up over a hundred votes for Labour before getting to twenty for the sitting MP or ten for the Conservatives, but not as bad as for the Green Party agent stood next to me who often didn’t see a single cross next to her candidate’s name, to the extent that one of the counters paused and gave a little “yay” to make sure she spotted one! Turnout was somewhat increased too in the ward. However, the final healthy majority achieved on what was a slightly reduced overall turnout across the seat was likely to have been at least as heavily drawn from former UKIP and Green voters in wards which had fewer students and an older population. In fact it looks like overall the most significant rise in Labour support here and elsewhere was in adults going up to their mid-40s. In retrospect perhaps this is not so surprising – things like free university tuition might well ultimately have greater appeal to parents of teenagers who worry about supporting their children through university than to the teenagers themselves, who had already decided they wanted to go to university even with fees at £9,000 a year. They are also the age group most likely in a few years to have parents who might need care and the ones most likely to have children in school.

Where next?

I don’t know, but I really hope there isn’t another election any time soon! But I do urge everyone that whatever their political preference, they should get involved to the extent that they can make time for it. Despite having always taken an interest in politics, I think I’ve learned more in the past few weeks of being actively involved than in all the years previously. But, despite having even gone to the effort of printing it out on the day of its launch, I don’t think I’ll ever now get round to reading the LibDem manifesto.

 

– the only blue in Leeds NW on 9th June 2017 was the early morning sky

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?