Dreaming of Lords reform

Surely there is nothing better for a lifelong liberal to do in an idle moment than to fantasise about some form of constitutional reform?  Well maybe that’s just me….but please indulge me for a moment.

In the last couple of weeks we have seen Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie explore the issue of all women short lists and the dissolution honours has prompted unease at the membership and structure of the House of Lords.  Could we solve both these issues in one move?

How about we elect (gasp!) the House of Lords but do so differently from the Commons?

Currently, the UK sends 73 MEPs to Europe from 12 constituencies.  My plan would be to use these same constituencies for the Upper House except with double the number of seats – half for women and half for men – 146 members in total – a reasonable amount for a focused chamber and more than the US Senate.  

To give the members of the Upper House the stability and the relative freedom from short term electoral issues that is often seen as an advantage of the current appointed system, the term of office would be 10 years – with the women candidates facing one cycle of elections and the men the other.  Every five years we would elect new members.  I think it would be fascinating to have an election cycle where we all voted (irrespective of gender) but the debate was led by women candidates.  Given 10 years is a relatively long term, we could think about limiting each person to only one term – encouraging people not to spend their whole careers in politics.

I would see less of an issue of there being “discrimination” for or against a particular gender.  Everyone would have the opportunity to elect and be served by both genders across the electoral cycles.

I would suggest that we elect the Upper House on each European Election day.  This does run the risk of conflating two electoral focuses but would, hopefully, save on cost and increase turnout to both.  It also separates the Upper House election from the House of Commons election.  This would, though require us to use the same form of election (and vacancy filling) as for Europe (list for Great Britain and STV for Northern Ireland) – a disappointment for those, like me, who prefer the choice of STV to the limited choice of the list.  Scotland tried in 2007 to have a mixture of STV, FPTP and list ballot papers on the one day and the confusion led to a record number of spoiled ballot papers.

I am sure there are criticisms of my flight of fancy.

Some will loathe the idea of electing on the basis of gender as a point of principle – which I respect even if I don’t share it.

Others will feel that other forms of inclusivity (race, age, class, educational background, sexuality, disability, etc) are not addressed by focusing only on gender and others will challenge that my proposal excludes those who understand gender beyond the binary.  I don’t dismiss these concerns but would say that no system is perfect (it is waiting for perfection that has allowed the Lords to stay appointed for so long) and no system can solve all problems.

What do you think?

* Stephen lives in Edinburgh, works in the oil industry in Aberdeen and has been a party member since he was 17.

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28 Comments

  • Alisdair McGregor 2nd Sep '15 - 11:28am

    Why would having an election on the same day mean you had to use the same system as the European Elections?

    Let’s not forget that Party Policy is to replace Party Lists with STV for Europeans elections anyway.

    A better solution would be for the House of Peers to be elected exactly midway through the 5 year fixed-term Parliament of the House of Commons.

    That this could lead to the first elections to the reformed upper chamber being held on November the Fifth is merely a bonus 😉

  • David Evershed 2nd Sep '15 - 12:31pm

    If we are going to have quotas of HoL members by gender then why not
    – quotas by age,
    – quotas by race and
    – quotas by ability.

  • Paul Harding 2nd Sep '15 - 12:41pm

    I admire your commitment to both Lords reform and to boosting the number of female parliamentarians. I disagree strongly with ‘slots for men and women’ although I agree with most practical methods of boosting female representation. Can I ask…

    Do you propose two ballot papers for the new HoLs? I.e. Could I vote for the Lib Dem women and Conservative men? How do transgender candidates class themselves should they wish to stand? What happens should a Parliamentarian go through a sex change procedure when elected? Once you ‘solve’ the problem of a gender balanced parliament how do you propose solving other minorities? Lists for BEM, LGBT Candidates, candidates with sight or hearing impairments?

  • Stephen Harte 2nd Sep '15 - 1:06pm

    Hi Paul. My proposal (back of an envelope as it is) would be for male and female candidates to be elected on different electoral cycles.

    Good question of whether someone would have to give up their seat if they legally chnaged gender during a term. I would say not but if this proposal were ever to progress the question would have to be answered.

    I’m not proposing lists for otehr groups but remember that the notion of lists is only one tool available to us. Even if we were to accept male and femela lists our inclusivity challenges (on gender as well as on the otehr issues you raise) would forever require work.

    One thing i do stress when evaluating this proposal (or any other) – the “best is the enemy of the good” (as Voltaire said) and we must be careful that we give up the chance to make an improvement just becuase it is not perfect.

  • @Carl Gardner

    “First, I think LibDems would do much better to be much less obsessive about constitutional issues, and talk more about people’s lives”.

    Some say obsessing about constitutional issues, others say wanting a more democratic system of government that could be more effective in improving people’s lives. A fringe issue, perhaps – but I’d wager that a Liberal party should be trying to address that the government has a 36% mandate and an upper chamber has none whatsoever.

    Agree with you in regard to talking more about the waysto improve people’s live, but as some point you have to talk about the system by which you can do so. If other parties are largely fine with the status quo (and being the status quo themselves they largely are), then someone has to point out the majority of people of this country are governed by a minority.

    PS your Twitter feed and blog are excellent and you were spot-on re: Corbyn/Ashdown.

  • David Faggiani 2nd Sep '15 - 3:26pm

    I just had back at the Conservative Manifesto 2015, to see what they promised on Lords Reform, if elected. It said:

    “While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected
    element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in
    the next Parliament. We have already allowed for expulsion
    of members for poor conduct and will ensure the House of
    Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the
    size of the chamber and the retirement of peers.”

    So, obviously, not our manifesto, but maybe, whilst acknowledging our own liberal, best-case ideas for the Chamber, we could take the route of the possible (at least for 2015-20) and focus on:

    a) what size do we want the chamber to be?
    b) what do we want the rules for retirement/fixed-terms to be?

    This way, we might actually get the House improved in the next five years.

    This is not to ignore your proposal Stephen! It’s an interesting system, particularly in respect of giving the UK ‘mid-terms’ of its own. I suppose my main problem with the Lords is not its un-elected status, but its size, expense, and, most crucially, lack of new people passing through it, because of too-lengthy tenures. More elections are not the only way to increase opportunity. Sometimes, just opening up more vacancies more frequently (giving more people ‘a turn’, even if it’s an appointed ‘turn’) can do a lot of good.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd Sep '15 - 4:43pm

    I would be more interested in our party working with the Tories on plans to reduce the size of the unlelected Lords if there were not also plans to reduce the size of the Commons.

    Reducing both simultaneously is too aggressive a ‘solution’ as it delivers too much power to the executive – but I would personally like to see theLords reduced to somewhere around half to two-thirds the size of the Commons (so if you had 660 MPs, the HoL would be between 330 to 440 strong).

    I personally could live with an HoL that included an indirectly elected or wholly appointed element, as long as the elected component was the majority of the House (say 2/3 to 3/4), and the patronage role of the PM was removed.

    Options for the non-elected part of the HoL could include direct appointment by an independent commission, list election based on General Election vote-share, or election by the Commons – but I feel that none of these options would be satisfactory if they constituted 100% of the HoL – there must be a significant, direct elected option.

    Frustratingly, there appears to be no other party seriously committed to reform, and all the various exercises serve to play people off against each other.

  • David Faggiani raises a could of good points:

    >”a) what size do we want the chamber to be?”

    Before we can really answer this one we need to ask what is it that we want the HoL to do and whether that is best done by having full-time members or part-time members with outside interests.

    One of the real risks of having an elected, full-time HoL is that it goes the same way as the HoC and (rapidly) becomes populated by career politicians and lost in its own variant of the Westminster bubble – result no real democratic improvement, in fact a big step backwards from where we are today!

    >”This way, we might actually get the House improved in the next five years.”

    Personally, I would follow David Steel’s lead (you know the LibDem peer who didn’t back Nick’s HoL Reform bill but went his own way and got cross party support that actually delivered a small focused piece of reform 🙂 ) and focus on enhancing the powers of the Appointments Commission so that they can reject candidates based on their “suitability”, thereby helping to prevent the appointment of party cronies and donors. Given the outrage from all quarters over some of the new appointments, I suspect this actually has a real chance of becoming law before 2020…

  • If you’re really serious about Lord reform why don’t you refuse to take part in it the way it is constructed now, like the SNP do. Is it because the Lib Dems are very much a part of the same establishment as the other two?

  • @David Evershed
    “If we are going to have quotas of HoL members by gender then why not
    – quotas by age,
    – quotas by race and
    – quotas by ability.”

    Quotas by social background. Or my own oddball suggestion: quotas by personality type. I’m serious. Restricting ourselves to the kind of people who are able to run a successful election campaign means we end up stuck with parliamentarians who are basically all the same type.

  • nvelope2003 3rd Sep '15 - 9:18am

    DavidW : If there were no peers wanting reform it would be difficult to get the necessary legislation passed by Parliament without which no reform could ever take place. The electoral system makes it hard for Liberal Democrats to get representation in the House of Commons in proportion to their share of the votes cast so seats in the House of Lords gives them a bigger opportunity to participate in the legislative process. What is wrong with that ?

    The Liberal Democrats are a party at least of Britain, the SNP are a party of Scotland who make an issue of not being part of the “Westminster”system and probably thought that as they would be unlikely to be offered peerages they would make a virtue out of necessity.

  • Matt (Bristol)

    “two-thirds the size of the Commons (so if you had 660 MPs, the HoL would be between 330 to 440 strong).”

    That sounds like a workable number.

    As for the compesition how about 1/3, 1/3, 1/3.

    1/3 STV
    1/3 indirectly elected (non-political)
    1/3 random from the electoral roll.

  • Half men and half women leaves no space for those who identify as neither. Intersex, non-binary and genderqueer folks (some trans some cis in all those categories) make up more than 1% of the population. Can we PLEASE stop automatically excluding them by not even acknowledging their existence in articles like this?

  • Jennie

    How would you propose we do that then? 49% men, 49 % women and 2% “other”?

    If someone is born male but identify as a female then they would count in the 49% female, wouldn’t they? And vice versa.

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Sep '15 - 12:32pm

    Psi — Personally, I wouldn’t be tussling with random sortition from the general public. But thikking further an positing again an ideal world (which it does appear very much that we are not in), I might be prepared for:

    – 3/6 (ie 50%) STV
    – 1/6 appointed by independent commission (non-political)
    – 2/6 (ie 1/3) random from the Privy Council (given there are 500+ of them)

    So you have the continuation of promotion to the HoL for experienced ministers, but the reduction of Prime Ministerial patronage in that process to an indirect form.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd Sep '15 - 1:10pm

    I do agree with Jennie on this. I am a fully committed supporter of the Women 50/50 campaign but that’s not a Women 50% and men 50%, it’s women 50% and anyone 50%.

    Imagine if you were growing up knowing that your gender identity did not fit in with society’s expectations. A whole parliamentary chamber that’s based on 50% women and 50% men is automatically going to exclude you. That’s just not fair and we need to avoid any perception that that is the case.

  • Phyllis: 50% women. Given that women are 51% of the population that means we’d definitely not be over represented.

  • Jennie. Ah yes I just read that on your Blog. Neat solution!

  • Matt (bristol)

    “Personally, I wouldn’t be tussling with random sortition from the general public”

    Out of curiosity, why?

    “appointed by independent commission”

    Why would this be needed if there was in direct eleection (my preference being councillors voting on non political experts, a replacement for cross benchers).

  • In terms of the 50% Women question. The 1/3 model will offer 51% Women in the random population probably better than goto in the direct elected population and I would estimate better than our current system in the in directly elected, both of which will improve over time.

  • Simon Thorley 3rd Sep '15 - 10:49pm

    @Carl Gardner

    Our constitution has a direct bearing on people’s lives. From your earlier posts on this forum, it’s clear that you favour a form of benign dictatorship, alternating between two feudal houses (shall we call them House Red and House Blue?) as the best form of government we can aspire to. We in the LDs tend to think that we can do much better than that, and have people in authority actually accountable for the decisions they make – fancy that!

  • “We in the LDs tend to think that we can do much better than that”

    And yet support changes that will tend to favour the establishment and institutionalisation of House Red and House Blue… There is much much more to a democratic society than holding elections: have elected Mayors and PCC’s made the country more democratic, or just provided smokescreens to greater concentration of power without meaningful accountability?

  • Simon Thorley 4th Sep '15 - 2:25pm

    @ Carl Gardner

    Your previous statements on the desirability of FPTP (opining that it provides proportionate influence, and is more democratic than PR systems) belie your position. A ‘feudal houses’ system of government can only persist under FPTP or other pluralist systems: you seem to see this as desirable, regardless of the fact that it prevents the governed from effectively holding the governing to account, strangles diversity of opinion, and provides for dynastic and nepotistic power handovers.

    What’s hyperbole is to suggest that the constitution is not ‘talking about people’s lives’, as if the fundamental rules of our country don’t impact every single piece of policy and law created. It’s a classic conservative (small c) position – we saw it deployed on a massive scale during the AV referendum campaign – and barely one step removed from ‘bread and circuses’. It’s an anti-democrat’s view of how democracy ought to be: predictable, controllable, arcane.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '15 - 6:43pm

    Alisdair McGregor 2nd Sep ’15 – 11:28am Because the Electoral Commission would have views.

  • I know I’m only a lone voice crying in the wilderness but… Let me give you an extract from a Mori poll in Jan 2016:
    “New polling by Ipsos MORI shows that the British public are less likely to trust politicians to tell the than estate agents, bankers and journalists.
    Just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 22% trusting journalists and estate agents and 31% who trust bankers. ”
    And the LibDem proposal for the lords amounts to “replace them with elected politicians”. Does that sound like a vote winning policy?

    In MY ideal world the Lords would
    * not be constrained by party loyalties (a few years ago friend of mine was offered a seat by Blair but on the condition that she compromised her independence by sitting on the labour benches, I’m pleased to report she turned it down).
    * be able to take a long term view of policies (i.e. not constrained by 5 or 10 year terms)
    * inject into the democratic process some of the best brains in the country from spheres of activity outside of politics – scientists, religious leaders, bankers, doctors, industrialists, entrepreneurs, computer experts (full disclosure – me!), land-owners – and yes, even a few hereditary peers.
    * yes there’s room for the odd party member but it shouldn’t be a retirement home for the Commons or a consolation prize for MPs who lose their seats.

    The is scope to look at their remuneration to discourage those who game the system, taking the cash but not making a contribution to debates. And there must be more robust disciplinary sanctions to ensure no more of the situations we have seen in recent years where despite “misbehaviour” individuals have continued to sit in the Lords.

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