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Keep up the peer pressure Aug 10

Imagine that the Iraqi Constitutional Convention had recommended that half of the national legislature should be appointed by the head of government. We would rightly have questioned if that was quite the commitment to democracy the West was hoping for.

Imagine that the Afghanistani Constitutional Convention had decided that some members of the legislature should be warlords chosen by the Head of State and guaranteed that their sons and heirs would take over from them as legislators. We would have wondered what had happened to the promise of democracy.

And yet there are more legislators sitting in the UK parliament who were not elected by the public than there are elected members. While our laws are being passed by an unelected House of Lords, we can’t claim to live in a democracy. A chamber of businessmen, charity workers, aristocrats and ex-MPs may have its attractions, but it’s not a symbol of a modern, free state.

Elect the Lords
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The House of Lords – whatever we choose to call it in future – should be 100% elected. There is no room for MPs as recompense for being dumped by the electorate or standing down as a favour to the party, nor for representatives of an established church, nor for members who want to retire but aren’t allowed to. Experts in their field – who may be expert in no other – can be called on by select committees or asked to run enquiries or just write letters to parliamentarians like the rest of us; they do not need seats reserved for them in the upper chamber. If the House’s raison d’être is to provide expert input into drafting legislation, we should abolish it and spend the money on consultants.

Rather than adding more flavours of religion to balance things out, the bishops should leave – unless they can win an election. If the Church of England really is so important, surely its congregation will happily help elect a few of its clergy into Parliament. There is a case to made for ex officio seats – for senior councillors, or MEPs, or assembly members – but a mix of members with different mandates is not appealing. (Would EU rules against a dual mandate prevent this, or would it be permissible because an MEP would be a Lord ex officio and therefore only have one mandate?)

How should members of the upper house be elected? By STV. Proportional representation would make it politically reflective of society and increase minority representation. It would actually make it more likely that ecclesiastical candidates with popular support would return to the house, with or without a party tag. Whatever electoral system is chosen, though, it should be a separate vote – the secondary mandate, whereby a vote for MP in a General Election counts towards a party in the Lords – is unworkable while we have a First-Past-The-Post House of Commons. FPTP forces tactical voting, but how can you vote tactically against an incumbent, say, if that vote then goes against your preferred party – locally third but maybe second nationally – in the Lords? To use a Big Brother analogy: say Mikey and Grace are up for eviction and I dislike Grace so I vote for her to go. A secondary mandate system would be like taking that vote and adding it to votes in favour of Mikey in the final even though I didn’t want him to win, just because I’d decided to keep him in that one specific situation. If we must have a party list system for the House of Lords, then let’s have a separate party vote for the House of Lords on General Election day.

But why have second best (or third best or fourth best) when you can have the Single Transferable Vote. It’s quite simply the best, and Britain should have the best. It’s the electoral system Harrods would sell.

I have in the past been tempted by the idea of single, long terms, but this disenfranchises the electorate. One complaint about the current system of political (or “independent”) appointees is that, however dreadful their voting record, they’re in Parliament for life. What check is there on an elected Lord who can’t stand again? (Unless they’re eyeing up a seat in the Commons – or would that be banned too?) What realistic check is there on the first 10 years of a 15 year term? Any system of term limits denies the electorate choice. If you don’t trust voters, any attempt at democratic reform is doomed to fail.

The last, farcical set of votes on composition of the House of Lords occurred before the General Election. We have a new set of MPs now – it’s time to put the matter to the vote again. There’s no need for new commissions: plenty of Labour MPs want reform, LibDems want reform, and Cameron will want to demonstrate the bright new young changed hip modern Conservative Party by coming out as more reformist than Blair. Jack Straw should call a single vote offering a majority-elected option and see which way the wind blows.

(This entry fulfils the Blog for Victory PledgeBank pledge. For more on Lords reform marking his anniversary, see the New Politics Network and Elect the Lords.)

One Response

  1. […] Will Howells ponders how we would react if the emerging democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq were to set up a system like the UK House of Lords. […]