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?