The dirty little secret the Coalition Government should address

The coalition government is pledged to introducing a package of reforms to our electoral system, including extending it to cover the House of Lords. Quite what the impact of these changes will be is an issue addressed in the Litmus newspaper jointly produced by Lib Dem Voice, Left Foot Forward and Conservative Home. Here is my piece on the topic, and you can read the full newspaper, including the other pieces on this topic from Lord Norton and Will Straw, either via the hard copies in conference registration packs or online at www.litmustest.org.

Litmus newspaper badgeThe present House of Lords model gives a seat in Parliament for life without having to face any election. We need constitutional reform and an electoral system that reduces the number of safe seats, argues Dr Mark Pack.

A healthy democracy not only gives people the vote, it also makes the fate of politicians dependent on how the votes are cast. Britain has a proud record for the first part of that equation, frequently among the first to expand the franchise in different ways and administering elections which, for all the glitches, have consistently been run impartially for over a century now.

Yet when it comes to the second half of the equation — whether the fate of politicians is genuinely in the hands of the public — Britain’s record is far from glorious. The prime example is the House of Lords: please a party leader once, get a role in Parliament for life.

Laziness, incompetence, stupidity and even financial transgressions all still leave you in post until you die. Even more shockingly, get defeated as an MP in an election and what happens? You stand a chance of being given a slot in the Lords for life. Treating defeated MPs well is one thing; responding by giving them a permanent place in Parliament without having to face an election again is taking gratitude rather too far.

The House of Commons, with its regular elections, at first glance is a completely different matter. Yet by courtesy of the combined workings of our electoral system and its boundaries, in practice a huge proportion of MPs do not have to worry about the public because their seats are safe.

Shockingly, around a quarter of the seats in Parliament have not changed hands between parties at any of the 17 general elections from 1945 onwards. In that period the country, the world and our politics have changed hugely. The economy has boomed and busted. Conservative and Labour landslides have come and gone, as have Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. The Cold War has started and finished. The list goes on… and all through that time for around a quarter of the seats the same party always wins.

Nor are these seats just a freakish extreme. Across all the general elections of the last 40 years, including 1970, nearly half the constituencies have not changed hands between parties even once. The reality of political life for far too many politicians is that voters electing and chucking out people is something that happens to others, not to themselves. It is a dirty little secret of large swathes of the political class.

It is dirty little secret the Coalition Government should address — but its promised reforms may not deliver on that.

Under the proposed reforms, the Lords will finally catch up with what the Commons started allowing some members of the public to do in the thirteenth-century — letting them vote on who gets to sit there. The details, however, may yet protect the dirty little secret: particularly if we get closed party lists and 15-year terms of office. Either – or, even worse, both — would mean safe seats and a new class of politicians not having to worry about the minor inconveniences of which way the public vote.

And the reforms should also help in the Commons, where the luxury of not having to worry about losing your seat unless you go ‘duck- house mad’ will be severely reduced if the voting system changes and if the new constituency boundaries reduce the number of safe seats.

The impact of fewer seats on the proportion that are safe is a relatively unstudied area and is therefore a largely unknown wildcard. Moving to the Alternative Vote is, of course, dependent on a referendum.

So it is in reform to the House of Lords that the Coalition Government can choose to be sure to sweep away at least part of the dirty little secret of politicians. It can choose an electoral system that requires individuals to work hard for public approval to get elected. It can choose rules that do not then preserve them in power for a long period immune from the public regardless of how mad, bad or dangerous they are. In other words, it can avoid closed lists, use a voting system that gives the public choices between candidates and avoid long single terms of office.

Will it choose to do so? That is very much an open question at the moment.

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7 Comments

  • What about the dirty little secret that the laws that created the UK are undemocratic, more undemocratic than Labour giving powers to Brussels without a referendum? We are devolving powers democratically when the very laws that created the union aren’t democratic.

  • I sincerely believe that the upper chamber is far less corrupt than the lower, even with new political appointments. It is a senior house (no doubt largely constituting senior citizens) there is far too much of the Tony Blair model in the current batch of leaders – 40-something and TV friendly appearance. I hope they leave the Lords alone.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 20th Sep '10 - 12:43pm

    To be honest, I’m more concerned about the completely undefined provision in the coalition agreement for “grandfathering,” a term I still don’t really understand, but which presumably means that some or all of the present Lords will continue to sit unelected after the reform has taken place.

  • Make the House of Commons the elected English Parliament. Make the House of Lords the elected Federal chamber for all of the UK and call it the House of Peers. Peers = those of equal merit.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Sep '10 - 8:20pm

    “grandfathering”

    Most likely it means:

    1. some or all of the current Lords will be given partial or full terms without an immediate election, so as not to replace the whole house at once and have a completely new set of people who don’t know what to do, and
    2. they haven’t worked out exactly how this will work yet

    A transitional period seems reasonable, particularly if we’re aiming for something like 10 year terms, with half the house elected every 5 years.

  • There is no significant relationship between the number of seats overall and the proportion of seats that are safe. Safe seats arise from the fact that both First-Past-the-Post and AV are winner-take-all voting systems in which a single representative of each political party stands for election in each district. The winner is typically the representative from the party which has the largest plurality of support in a riding. Since people’s political beliefs are relatively fixed (though their loyalty to a particular party may be less firm), relatively few tend to shift their votes from one party to another; rather, they will decide if the candidate their preferred party puts forth is worth supporting or not – if not, they’ll stay home, which allows the representative from the next largest plurality to win. The only seats, therefore, that are at significantly at risk are those in which two or more parties have roughly equal shares of the popular vote. Small shifts in sentiment in a particular election may affect turnout and cross-party shifts (on the margin) and so may change the outcome in these marginal seats, but will not threaten the many safe seats where one party has a solid plurality (say 10% higher than the next most competitive party).

    The only way to make elections competitive in these safe seats is to give the voters supporting the party with the largest plurality a choice of candidates. That is, parties must be made to field more candidates than seats they are expected to win. The only voting systems that do this are proportional systems – e.g., STV typically requires that parties put up at least one more candidate than the number of seats they expect to win; this means that voters which support a given party will in effect choose which of that party’s candidates is the least attractive to them by electing all the others. In an open-list PR system (which has bigger constituency boundaries), voters are given mechanisms to choose the candidates they like the most.

    Of course, parties can try gaming such systems by only putting forward as many candidates as seats they expect to win, but they run two risks by doing this: (1) if their party suddenly starts doing well in the polls, they may miss out on a chance to elect additional representatives because there’s no-one in the pool to capture these new votes, or (2) if voters get upset that they have no choice, they might decrease the overall level of support for that party and cause them to lose seats, since PR systems are quite efficient at registering these shifts in support.

    In short, the best answer to safe seats is STV or open-list PR (or, arguably, an amendment to the AV bill to force parties to run more than one candidate – see Daniel Henry’s article.

  • Darren Reynolds 1st Dec '10 - 11:43am

    I think 15-year terms are fine, even necessary, provided they’re balanced by a power of recall. Many of the decisions taken by governments are short term precisely because of electoral fears. Consider investment in Alzheimer’s research. The investment is considerable, but not inconceivably so when compared with other large budgets. It could take 10-20 years to produce a result. The rewards would be absolutely enormous. But no government is going to do it because there will be several elections during the period where money has been spent but no return achieved.

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