Opinion: Electoral reform – How to

House of Commons at NightWe all know that electoral reform to both houses is important to us a party, quite rightly so. The current system is appalling, First Past The Post for the Commons does not bring fair votes for the electorate and at best only around 40% of voters voted for any government of the day (meaning of course 60% didn’t). The House of Lords is even worse, un-democratic and reeking of an old boys’ network.

However, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a two house system – of course we should. The scrutiny of a second chamber of government is vital to well thought out and properly debated laws and policy. But how do we get to the utopia of two proportionally elected chambers?

The answer is, I think, remarkably simple: piecemeal.

We sit in an 800+ year old constitutional monarchy; we cannot simply change the fabric of the system over-night. It must evolve, as it has done, over time, getting ever closer to a better way. It was proved in the AV referendum that only 32% of voters are willing to change the commons voting method now (although interestingly, that’s roughly the same vote share the Tories got in the last general election).

We must build momentum towards that with changes which are easier to achieve and help the cause:

  1. Bring in the ability for peers to resign from the House of Lords but retain their title. We all know there are many – hundreds – of peers who do not sit in the House, but could if they wished. Giving them the right to formally resign from politics would help clear up the Lords (currently if every peer wanted to attend the house they wouldn’t all fit!).
  2. Removal of all remaining hereditary peers. A person should be raised to the second chamber based on their ability and contribution to the nation, not on their family of birth.
  3. Removal of seats in the Lords for Bishops. There are still 26 Bishops that sit in the house by virtue of their role in the church. Removing this out-dated idea would do much to increase the standing of the second chamber in the public mind and I think be very popular.
  4. Introducing a percentage of elected peers, starting at say 10% of the total house (obviously we could then campaign on increasing this percentage over the course of the multiple parliaments towards a 50/50 split). Elected Lords could be elected on a 7 year cycle, so as to be out of sync with general elections, using a regional PR system (I’d recommend the D’Hondt system as with the Euro elections).

This gradual improvement of the second chamber would demonstrate to the public that electoral reform is relevant, achievable and of huge benefit to our country, bringing us ever closer to the day where we can get a referendum on a proportional system (AV, STV, PR) and win it.

The Liberal Democrats should make electoral reform a key part of our manifesto and plans for the future, bringing real change to Great Britain.

* Barry Holliday Barry Holliday is Lib Dem PPC for Nottingham South, Nottingham City Lib Dems vice-chair & campaigns officer. He is a secondary school teacher of History & PSHCE and Notts County FC fan

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19 Comments

  • Kevin McNamara 27th Oct '14 - 12:32pm

    I actually think your reforms would make the Lords more and more palatable to the public, which might not assist our cause.

  • Conor McGovern 27th Oct '14 - 12:58pm

    ^That’s the main problem. Same goes for the monarchy.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Oct '14 - 1:00pm

    I thoroughly agree that piecemeal is a good way to go, but I don’t agree with the specific proposals as they’re far too minor. I think we should aim at a middle ground somewhere between full blown STV for the Commons (which won’t happen immininently, but remains a long term aim) and tiny changes round the edges, which I think these proposals are. As Kevin McNamara says above, such tiny changes could give an air of respectability to the Lords which they don’t deserve. One of the trump cards we reformers currently hold is that the House of Lords is an unelected affront to democracy. I actually anticipate that with the right combination in Government (perhaps a Lib Dem, Labour coalition or agreement?) some genuine Lords reform will actually take place. We’re tantalisingly close already.

    And on the same theme of small steps, PR for local elections is a great first place to start and could educate the public about the reality of PR elections, whch would in turn be good for those who ultimately want the Commons elected by a fairer voting system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Oct '14 - 2:01pm

    Yes, we used to think this argument was so obvious that most people would support us on it, and only a few small-c conservatives would oppose it, along with Labour and Conservative Party people who would have their own party political reasons for opposing change.

    In reality we have discovered however (as we did with the AV referendum) that the power of the media can very easily be brought against us, and used to get a popular vote against reform. The right-wing press is very happy to bring down this sort of proposal with the usual anti-politics line. This line says that the House of Lords is full of experts who can say and do what they think right according to their expertise because they don’t have to fight elections to get there and stay there. We are then denounced for wanting to get rid of that and fill the Lords with just another set of elected party politicians.

    Of course, given that the Lords is mainly made up of party political nominees, it’s nonsense, but the “No” campaign shows that nonsense can win when it has loud voices shouting for it. And when what is being proposed is being proposed by the Liberal Democrats: “nah nah nah nah nah, nasty dirty rotten Liberal Democrats, vote no to whatever it is they want to punish them, nah nah nah nah nah”. Well, that seemed to go down well in 2011.

    I think we need to start by fighting the more general case for democracy itself against the currently fashionable anti-politics line which is being pushed by the fat-cat-Russell-Brand alliance (I use the “Russell Brand” name to mean all those who would spout such nonsense, obviously it’s necessary to be famous for being on the telly to get it published in book form and taken semi-seriously).

  • Yes, we used to think this argument was so obvious that most people would support us on it, and only a few small-c conservatives would oppose it, along with Labour and Conservative Party people who would have their own party political reasons for opposing change.

    Ah, the common Lib Dem refrain: ‘Anybody who doesn’t agree with us must be stupid or evil.’

    Really good way to get people to consider voting for you, that, calling them stupid.

  • Barry,
    Sometimes it is necessary to compromise to build maximum support but I hope you  would agree that it is  best to set out your ideal solution first and campaign for that.    If you then are forced to compromise to get four fifths of what you want, or even as little as a half that may be realpolitik.  

      For a manifesto. or a statement of key policies you must start with what you really want.   
    If, for example,  you think a fully elected House of Lords is the solution, you should say so and campaign for that.

    I think your compromises made even before the campaign has started would provide far too little far too late.   

    Your rationale for piecemeal change seems to be based on dubious history.   
    Our “constitutional monarchy” is not 800 years old.
    If that is a reference to Magna Carta, King John did not become a constitutional monarch.
    The “British” monarchy dates from 1603 when James the sixth of Scotland took on the crowns of England and Ireland.
    As all that came before the English Civil War a more accurate starting point might by the so-called “restoration”.
    For the sake of brevity let’s quickly pass over the Dutch King William, the Hanoverians and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas in case UKIP readers get itchy about the fact that for 350 years we have had a monarchy of immigrants who could not all be bothered to learn to speak English.

    If we are serious about democracy, and I think you are, then we have to start in 2014 and forget all this Kings and Queens nonsense and think in the present and plan for the immediate future.

    If you put up a piecemeal compromise to campaign on you will get even less.   This was the fatal flaw in the Clegg approach to House of Lords Reform and that was why it produced a dog’s dinner of a Bill that was doomed even before it began.   Clegg’s  dreadful Bill that nobody, nobody wanted  combined with his personal inability to achieve a majority in the Commons (for a policy that Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Nationalists and the Greens all had in their 2010 manifestos)  is an object lesson in how NOT to do things.

    Similarly, the lesson to learn from the AV Referendum is that you do not waste tax payers’ money on a referendum asking people to vote for a compromise system that nobody actually wanted in the first place.

    But we are where we are and hopefully we can forget about the abysmal Clegg failures on constitutional reform and instead build a consensus across parties for REAL reform rather than a mush of piecemeal delays.    That way, even if we cannot do something “over night” we can at least build a majority in the House of Commons for a Bill which will get support from  more than a couple of parties.    That way it can be done in one parliamentary session of twelve months.

    Real reform of the Lords could of course have been done in the last couple of years even after the initial failure because there has been a majority for an elected Lords throughout this parliament;  it is just that Clegg has been incapable of working on the issue with anyone from the Labour Party because of his slavish kow-towing to his Conservative chums and his habitual bad-mouthing of anyone from the Labour Party even when they agree with him.   

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Oct '14 - 3:51pm

    @ km – ” I actually think your reforms would make the Lords more and more palatable to the public, which might not assist our cause”

    What is the cause of which you speak? To make a better second chamber, or, dismantle the lords?

  • What is the cause of which you speak? To make a better second chamber, or, dismantle the lords?

    I’m just amused that a self-proclaimed ‘democrat’ thinks that something being ‘palatable to the public’ is in some way a bad thing.

    Once again it seems to imply that you know what is good for the public better than the public does.

  • John Roffey 27th Oct '14 - 5:44pm

    Good point Dav – thinking, acting and believing that you always know better and that the public are stupid is likely to lead a Party to minority status and struggling not to lose its deposit at every election fought!

    There is an argument for allowing the monarch to appoint all of the members of the HofL with one representing the monarch – if they do not wish to attend themselves. In this way the clear influence of [currently] the Queen and Prince Charles would be there for all to see and not exercised behind the scenes. At least in this way they could be blamed when their judgement was proven poor [of members or the judgements made by the House as a whole].

    To aid democracy and to ensure there was not rivalry between the two houses – the HofL would be required to hold a referendum on any bill they still did not like by its third reading.

    The monarch of course would be able to sack any member when they felt the need arose. I suspect, if the monarch’s reputation was on the line each time the House voted – it would be very rapidly slimmed down with the ‘dead wood’ quickly removed [particularly if they were answerable for its costs].

  • >But how do we get to the utopia of two proportionally elected chambers?

    Sorry, I missed it, but what exact was the question that yielded the answer “two proportionally elected chambers”?
    I get a distinct feeling of deja vu from reading this article, in that it doesn’t seem to have moved on from the debate that was had a few years back, where the many pitfalls of having two elected chambers where extensively explored.

    Picking up from JohnTilley, I do think that we need to re-think how the tripartite system with it’s titular head works in the UK post 2014 (ie. takes account of the EU, devolution etc.). Then, once we have a desirable destination, we can begin sell the journey, which may well be one step at a time.

  • John – “For the sake of brevity let’s quickly pass over the Dutch King William, the Hanoverians and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas in case UKIP readers get itchy about the fact that for 350 years we have had a monarchy of immigrants who could not all be bothered to learn to speak English.”

    Funny how history repeats! We shouldn’t overlook that French/Anglo-Norman French were the court languages for 350~400 years following the conquest (in 1066); only the hoi polloi spoke Middle English.

  • Theres an interesting article covering some of these issues over on Labour List – “As British Politics trundles towards The Abyss.” Support for Electoral Reform does seem to be growing among Labour activists.

  • Martin Gentles 28th Oct '14 - 6:49pm

    @JohnRoffey

    You can’t have a constitutional monarch overtly exercising power in the way you suggest. Because then you’d have something that resembles an absolute monarch and even monarchic Britain wouldn’t stand for that.

  • Roland 27th Oct ’14 – 8:02pm
    “……We shouldn’t overlook that French/Anglo-Norman French were the court languages for 350~400 years following the conquest (in 1066); only the hoi polloi spoke Middle English.”

    Yes, indeed, Roland.
    Perhaps the legacy of the deferential serf Iives on in some of the comments here.
    The language spoken today in the Westminster Bubble often seems very different from that spoken by us mere plebs.
    The pretend “Norman French” used in some parliamentary procedures adds to the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of our parliament.
    An incredible amount of what takes up time in both House of Pariament is farcical.
    The daily Speaker’s Procession for example. The Harry Potter titles such as “Silver Wand” and “Black Rod”. Daily christian prayers by MPs many of whom are atheists and agnostics or belong to another faith. Not to mention the large number of bars in the Palace of Westmnster where some MPs are said to spend far more time than in the chamber or the committee rooms.

    We do not need a gradual piecemeal reform of this pig sty, we need all this nonsensical sh#t cleaned out immediately.

  • Andy Johnson 25th Nov '14 - 6:03pm

    “It was proved in the AV referendum that only 32% of voters are willing to change the commons voting method now ”
    Nothing of the kind. It was proved that 32% of those who voted were not prepared to change the voting method to AV. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t favour PR.

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