The Independent View: the Alternative Vote – what about the House of Lords?

The debate on whether to replace First Past the Post with AV for elections to the House of Commons certainly seems to be warming up. Both sides are seeking increasing media coverage, bloggers from both sides are debating on the internet, and public interest seems to be growing on the issue.

Yet there seems to me one thing missing – an appreciation of the role of the House of Lords, and how it might be reformed.

The reason for this is quite important – the House of Commons does not exist in a vacuum. The AS-level course I teach on Government and Politics stresses the importance of a second chamber as a revising chamber. In particular, there is a constitutional principle that the second chamber should not be a copy of the first.

This raises several questions.

The first is an obvious question for the Liberal Democrats. Having advocated STV for the House of Commons, they appear to also advocate the STV for the House of Lords. Such a position is untenable in my opinion. An elected Lords should not simply be a copy of the Commons, with some different electoral boundaries or different terms of office.

This is where the Alternative Vote (AV) could be useful to the Lib Dems. A logical compromise position would be AV for the Commons, and STV for the Lords (sorry, Senate!). The strength of such an arrangement would be the constituency link is kept in the lower chamber. Meanwhile, the Upper Chamber would have a wide diversity of opinion, with more Lib Dems, and Green and UKIP groups.

Yet this raises an interesting second question. We’re about to have a referenda on the alternative vote for the Commons. Why not the Lords at some stage as well?

There seems to be a consensus amongst the political parties about having an elected House of Lords. However, there is also a constitutional consensus that major constitutional changes should be put to the British people It’s difficult to argue when the North-East gets a referendum on a regional assembly, there shouldn’t be one on Lords reform.

Which leads me to the third question – what happens if we vote in a referendum to keep first past the post but then make the Lords elected by STV with no referenda? Those in favour of First Past the Post will argue that they’ve won a referendum, and so the system should not be changed, and the Commons remain dominant. Those in favour of STV will argue that a Senate elected by STV is more representative than the Commons, and therefore the new Senate should be the more powerful of the two chambers. Constitutional deadlock could well then ensue.

There seems a sensible balance of power here between two revised chambers, which the Liberal Democrats could sell to other parties. AV in the Commons plus STV in the Lords might just be the right balance of power for a reformed Parliament.

Simon Foster is a Lecturer in Politics in the West Midlands, and the author of several citizenship textbooks.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul McKeown 2nd Sep '10 - 3:02pm

    Logically to me you should elect a government by a party proportional system and negotiated coalition agreement, and you should elect a constituency representative by the best majoritarian system. The constituency representatives should be in the revising chamber, not the governing chamber. Of course that is the opposite of what appears possible at the moment….

  • Agree if would be a good combination, although more details on the reform of the Lords is supposed to be announced before the end of the year (partially or wholly elected) already.

    Certainly a fully proportional Lords would counterbalance the inequality of the Commons, be that a Commons with FPTP or AV.

  • John Richardson 2nd Sep '10 - 3:11pm

    What is the problem exactly with having both elected via STV? I agree that it’s a waste of time to have a simple copy of the lower chamber. However, longer terms, fewer members, and different powers are significant differentiators. I don’t see why we should compromise on representation.

  • Colin Green 2nd Sep '10 - 3:39pm

    I’m going to echo again the sentiment that just because the two chambers should be different it doesn’t follow that STV cannot be used for both, unless you have a valid reason that is omitted from your article.

  • I like this article. AV ensures a majority election to a constituency based house of delegates. STV acts as the representative house.

    Having said this, constutional deadlock would not, I think, ensue, as Erskine May is effectively our constitution for the passage of legislation and I cannot see those written conventions being rejected. The FPTP/AV house would remain sovereign at the moment unless explicitly stated otherwise.

    Also, I am unsure as to why you need STV for the House of Lords / Senators / Representatives if a constituency link is maintained within the House of Commons / Delegates? Surely a list system, with a constituencies the size of nations (with the option of expulsion from the list) is preferable. Alternatively, STV with a smaller senate might work on region-sized constituencies.

  • John Richardson 2nd Sep '10 - 3:57pm

    Surely a list system

    The overriding objection to lists is that electors do not get to choose individuals to represent them. Quite rightly, IMO. Every member of the legislature should be personally subject to direct electoral scrutiny not just those in the marginal zone.

    This is actually one of the commonest raised objections to PR from people who think the Lib Dems are proposing Euro style lists for the HoC. There is not a good understanding out there of exactly what STV is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Sep '10 - 5:05pm

    A logical compromise position would be AV for the Commons, and STV for the Lords (sorry, Senate!). The strength of such an arrangement would be the constituency link is kept in the lower chamber.

    This is an illogical compromise. The point of representative democracy is that government is through an assembly which accurately represents the population as a whole. By “representative” is meant people we can trust to think and act as we would were we in their place. It is important to make this distinction from the “delegative” idea where representatives are supposed not to think but instead do what they have been commanded to do at a lower level. The reason for this is that democracy has to be about finding the most satisfactory compromise, this cannot be done in a delegate system because it involves thought and independent action by the representatives. That is why the idea that democracy is delegative ends up in a Stalinist/fascist way of thinking about government. It reduces the representative chamber to a token with the real decision making beng done elsewhere i.e. by “The Party”. Then elections are really about nominating which of The Parties is to rule us, and that is it. This way of thinking cannot abide the idea of coalitions as that involves active development of policy outside The Party. It therefore prefers a system whereby whichever of The Parties gets most votes is elected to be dictator for the next five year. That is why this way of thinking prefers systems like AV/FPTP which tend to distort representation in favour of the largest party and thinks it better to have a dictatorship of one party that has less than half the share of the vote than have a coalition. Though the true logic of their position is that they should support the electoral system introduced in Italy in 1922 as that most accurately reflects their approach to politics.

    If we go for representative democracy, it has to use proportional reprsentation. The truest form is the Hare system, where every representative is there because a fixed proportion of the population has asked that person to be their representative. STV compromises on the proportionality this gives in order to have geographical constituencies with managable ballot papers.

    It is not so important that a second or revising chamber or Senate should be so accurately representative. The point of this chamber is to contain expertise. This is indicated by the word “Senate”, which means really a collection of old men. That is, people who have accumulated years of wisdom they can use to reflect on policy.

    It seems to me that the Senate may well best be elected by a list system. It would then be up to the parties to ensure their lists contain what they feel is useful expertise. The thing about the list system is that it gives a chance for people who are not well-known to the public or who are not good at presenting themselves nevertheless to have a role in government by virtue of their other qualities. Such people might find it hard to get elected by STV because of the showmanship necessary to gain personal votes. It is then an important job of the parties to find and nominate these people to their lists. To some extent, this IS how the life peer system works. Also, in the UK, there is nothing to stop hereditary peers and bishops etc putting themselves forward as a list – so let us see just how much support they REALLY have from those who claim they are valuable.

  • @John Richardson – I know. But I am not quite so swayed by this if we have indivicual champions for constituencies in another house.

    I am also less won on this as STV means that I may be proportionally represented by someone I didn’t vote for, or best represented by someone in a different super-constituency. The objections to constituencies remain under STV, though I admit STV is more proportional and these objections are weaker. I have other worries about STV, the media, and rural/urban challenges.

    I understand the arguments, I do not yet find them convincing.

  • The trick with the upper house is to prevent it getting stuffed by the party in power (or used as a retirement home by the party that just went out) without encouraging Lords to be to populist and tabloid driven in an attempt to win seats.

    The undemocratic nature of the place sits slightly at odds with me, but then again the thought of Baron Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal atop a battle bus with a megaphone or Carol Vorderman running a dirty tricks campaign against Floella Benjamin seems a worse prospect.

    Or perhaps the expertise section of the upper chamber should be separated from the representative section so there are seats reserved for legal, scientific, economic and social experts which are elected by learned societies.

  • Daniel Henry 4th Sep '10 - 1:59am

    I’m not sure I agree with directly electing Lords.
    Every time I see the Lords in action, it brings to mind how mature and rational they are compared to the populism, point scoring and sound biting we hear in the commons. Having to win elections attracts people with a “Public Relations” mindset, while the Lords’ job is more one of experience, qualification and expertise.

    The only reason I can think of to elect the Lords is that the current balance of parties doesn’t necessarily reflect how the public want the chamber to be made up. I think that election of the Lords should be some kind of List-PR, where people vote for a party and the result determines how much of the House that represents that party.

    That said, to answer the original post, and STV Lords would differ to an STV Commons as follows:
    1) Each elected Peer would keep their place for 15 years. (So less short term)
    2) The elections would be held at the same time as European elections and use the same large constituencies.
    (Much larger than the constituencies for a Commons STV)

    Here’s a white paper of proposals made:

  • john stevens 4th Sep '10 - 11:36am

    An all elected House of Lords is vital since AV may be in trouble. A regional list is probably the best option to get Tory support. My fear is that obstruction from present incumbents, a long transition period which will not help preserve us beyond the next election and lack of willingness to have contingency plans if AV goes down will see us out-manoevred on this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Sep '10 - 10:00pm

    Simon Foster

    Imagine you’re living in Oxfordshire under STV with 6 MPs. Which one do you go to with a problem?

    The one you feel will do the best job for your problem. So you have a choice, you can picjk oneof your own party which you can’t under AV or FTP if you’re in a geographical minority. With a choice of MPs, you also might want to choose one of your own gender, etc. The choice of MPs to go to with your problem is a big positive feature of STV.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Sep '10 - 10:10pm

    I want to go and see my local MP. Now, North Cornwall, as Dan Rogerson MP will know, is a constituency that takes a long time to drive to one end to the other. What size of constituency are we proposing for STV? (Cornwall?)

    Yes, Cornwall.

    But you illustrate a common fallacy made by people when discussing STV. To get elected under STV, you have to win a quota of votes, that is all. There is no requirement that the quota come from all over the constituency. If a candidate can get a quota of votes just from North Cornwall, that candidate when elected can regard himself/herself primarily as the MP for North Cornwall. Anyone who values the local conection can just campaign in one area. Anyone Conserativve or Labour person who says “I don’t like STV because of multi-member constituencies” can, when voting, cast their vote for the Conservative or Labour candidate who declares himself or herself as the local candidate for that part of the constituency, and give their second preference to the most local candidate of another party rather than to a Conservative or Labour candidate who is campaigning primarily in another part of the constituency. Simple – you can use STV as if it is AV if you want, there’s nothing stopping you. But why, if that’s the way you think, FORCE that way of thinking into other people by insisting they too must restrict their choices to a most local basis?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Sep '10 - 12:23am

    Or do you see STV as having different numbers of MPs in different parts of the country (eg: 5-6 for Cornwall, 9-10 for Birmingham) based on historical boundaries?

    Yes. In many cases the historic counties work well, so it might be a selling point to use them.

    I am VERY puzzled by your comment about a constituent “having to work out, who is offerring the correct advice”. It appears that rather than have a constituent receive advice from multiple sources so he or she can work out which sounds best, you would want that person to receive just one lot of advice even if it is wrong.

    I was myself a councilor in a ward which for as time had two LibDems and one Labour councillor. My constituents loved it – they could play one off against the other, making them compete to see who came across the best, go to me or the other LibDem to moan about the Labour-run council, then go to the Labour councillor when they thought going to someone who was in the ruling party would help.

    BTW, when you wrote “I’m glad you don’t support the Hare system”, you had no evidence to state that. I described the full Hare system, then I described STV as a compromise to produce manageable ballot papers. This statement about STV was a factual statement, that’s all. I said neither that I supported this compromise or that I didn’t.

  • charliechops1 6th Sep '10 - 11:05am

    This is, if I can be bold enough to say, is a typical Lib Dem type post. Let us deal with real politics. A party rating 11 per cent in the polls should not really determine the voting system or unduly influence fundamental changes in the Constitution. Labour, which offers an alternative to the Coalition, has no conceivable interest in politics designed to perpetuate Con/Lib Dem coalitions. Electoral reform cannot take place in such circumstances. If a referendum on AV goes ahead next May (now there’s a date) it will be defeated. Labour is not in business to promote Coalitions and permanent Opposition for itself.

  • Simon Foster 10th Sep '10 - 9:09pm


    Real politics puts the Lib Dems wanting electoral reform, the Greens wanting electoral reform, UKIP wanting electoral reform, and the Labour Party spending the last election campaigning for electoral reform.

    However, you miss the real clincher. The parties won’t decide, we – the people, the voters – will. And with 1% between the Yes and No camps, there is everything for both sides to play for.

    @Matthew – Sorry if I mislead your comments about the Hare system.

    Let me try and express my concerns further about having more than 1 local representative.

    When I ran an MPs office, one of the things we’d frequently get casework on is Tax Credits, from people desperate to sort out a pressing financial problem.

    Some of these people do not have the time or energy to “play people off” as you suggest. They wanted a straight answer from somebody who would sort out their problem with the benefits system.

    I’m concerned with what would happen if such a person got conflicting advice from different representatives – on a complex situation where they’ve been messed around far too much already.


  • Simon Foster 10th Sep '10 - 9:10pm

    @Matthew – Or even “misread”. I really need to go and pick up those reading glasses from the opiticians tomorrow 😉

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