Opinion: Why is Nick Clegg being quite so wrong on Lords reform?

If there is one thing taken for granted amongst Lib Dems it is that the House of Lords needs radical reform. In fact, most Lib Dems would go further than that. Like Cromwell, they would abolish the Lords outright, to be replaced with a Senate or not at all. But there are a substantial minority who, like me, think this is the wrong approach.

In an otherwise excellent speech before Christmas Nick Clegg set out his stall as a fervent abolitionist. He used the rhetoric of Lloyd George to express his purported frustration with the, er, hereditary system which was effectively abolished in 1999. The Lords, said Nick, are “a chamber which legislates on behalf of the people – but is not held to account by the people”.

This isn’t true. The fact that it is unelected does not actually matter, simply because the House of Lords does not really legislate in a conventional sense. Some bills originate there. And it amends. It scrutinises. But it does not veto. If there was an issue of serious cross-party contention the House of Commons would simply overrule the Lords entirely, as it can. In the words of Nick Clegg, “if it comes to a fight, the will of the Commons will prevail”.

With the surreal exception of Paul Daniels, the hereditary system has no public supporters. Rightly so. But the House of Lords is not hereditary. It is appointed, partly through cronyism, but mostly through merit. We ought to focus on cutting out the cronies and bolstering the merit. By electing the Lords we will be destroying the expert groups who do most of its important work and replacing them with worthless party hacks who are only there to further their careers. No more expertise. No more independence. Just naked, party political posture.

And the reforms will mean the Lords is elected by proportional representation: a system that is more democratic than that used in the House of Commons. This will make it impossible for anything to happen. What we’ll get is the House of Lords blocking anything the Commons tries to do. The reason for this is that the Lords, elected under PR, will have actually have more democratic legitimacy than the Commons. So when the Commons complains, it will be correctly told it has less legitimacy, and can get stuffed.

I am not joking: this is the most disastrous thing the coalition could do. It will condemn us to generations of constitutional wrangling and collapse the quality of our legislation. So Nick. Focus on the stuff that matters. Increase the power of local government. Champion electoral reform. Don’t get bogged down in the rhetoric of 1911 when there’s much more important stuff to be getting on with elsewhere.

* Robin McGhee is a Liberal Democrat member in Oxford

* Robin McGhee is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington.

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  • Neil Bradbury 27th Dec '11 - 3:05pm

    This article is stupidity on stilts. I love a bit of counter factual argument but really. Firstly, the idea that the Lords is not a party political body is silly, it just favours the Establishment party. Any house that houses corrupt criminals with no chance to boot them out is ripe for change. The idea that the HoL is full of experts who are so wise is easily debunked by actually going and listening to it. A bunch of self referential has beens with a small few who actually ever speak or play a meaningful part. As for the idea that giving it democratic legitimacy will change the balance well that is a good thing. The balance between the two houses changes all the time. Virtually every democracy (except Israel to my knowledge) has an elected second chamber. In some it is powerful. What is the issue?

  • What, seriously?

  • Its all about 80-20 splits.

    The Clegg proposals would see us with an 80-20 split between democratically elected legislation reviewers and appointed experts to inform said debate. The presence of the appointed few would undermine the upper house’s ability to out-legitimate the Commons, plus the fact that the members are going to be elected to very large multi-member constituencies presents the argument that the link from the individual to the institution is that much more distant and therefore less politically legitimate.

    Regardless of all that talk, the fact also remains that the mandate the upper house would be elected to would automatically undermine it in any showdown between the houses – they would be elected to review, consider and amend, not block. The job description would come back to bite them.

    The current situation has the same 80-20 split, give or take. But as it is, the split is between politically appointed cronies of their then-current ruling party placed there to pad the votes, and again 20% experts to inform the debate. Fact is that the expertise is a fig leaf to obscure the fact that the vast majority of the Lords are political cronies being rewarded for loyalty to the Party. And the hereditaries aren’t gone, they’re just a much reduced faction within the house.

    Ironically, the fact that they elect themselves from among the eligible blue-bloods means that there’s better quality control on them than on the political appointees.

  • jedibeeftrix 27th Dec '11 - 5:36pm

    “What we’ll get is the House of Lords blocking anything the Commons tries to do. The reason for this is that the Lords, elected under PR, will have actually have more democratic legitimacy than the Commons.”

    In your opinion, but not necessarily in the eyes of a great majority of the electorate who rejected electoral reform.

    Not that i am a particular fan of an elected lords, the old system worked very creditably and i would be content if it still operated today, but a system of appointments as created by labour is always going to be a abused by the government of the day. I believe the lords is an unsustainable institution given the tendency towards appointments of new lords en-masse.

    That said, the reform agenda has been rather cleverly worked to limit the legitimacy of an elected Lords, in order that it cannot create the legislative grid-lock seen in the US resulting from an inflated view of its own role.

    1. 15 year terms
    2. 20% appointed
    3. 300 members
    4. No direct constituency link
    5. By having a rolling introduction of one third newly elected every parliament, combined with the fifteen year terms, there will continue thereafter to be only one third elected at each and every parliamentary term. Therefore there will never be a case where the lords can claim a national mandate from the people.

    The idea of fifteen years terms phased in over the course of three parliaments is very clever for it will clearly limit the power of the Lords, and box them into their role as a revising chamber.

    Only one third would be elected in any given year and with no single election across all constituencies it will be difficult to claim a mandate from the people with which they can challenge the Commons.

    The fifteen year terms, large constituencies, and 20% of appointed Peers will likewise damage their legitimacy as representative agents of the people.

    The desire to prevent congruent bicameralism, where both Houses are elected to represent the same constituencies as MP’s, and the desire to have a revising chamber work in a less partisan manner may well make the argument for using STV in the Lords.

    It is not as if this problem wasn’t anticipated given that Clegg was banking on PR in the Lords all along.

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Dec '11 - 5:53pm

    Of course the system of appointments wasn’t created by Labour at all – it was created by Macmillan in 1958; and it was also Macmillan’s government (in 1963) that first undermined the hereditary principle by allowing peers to disclaim their peerages. That apart, Jedword’s absolutely right in his analysis of why this article is blowing up a straw man in worrying about “legitimacy” crises.
    I’m for democracy (in the Churchillian sense). Let’s elect our parliamentarians, eh?

  • Niels Bohr “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field”.

    >With the surreal exception of Paul Daniels, the hereditary system has no public supporters

    Of course it has public supporters. Do you seriously think that Paul Daniels is the only one?

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Dec '11 - 6:18pm

    Okay, but if that Wiki quote is correct (linked to in the article above), it’s worth reading just for entertainment value: “The hereditary peers, the real Lords, have the genetic knowledge so they know what to pass and what not to let through”

    It’s true that the hereditary system has many other supporters (see Jedi above); but I doubt there are many who would support the hereditary principle quite so explicitly or so barkingly.

  • As for the “expert” role, can’t we just impose severe criteria on who can stand for election to the HoL e.g. number of years heading major national body or working in particular field? That way we could successfully hybridise the institution, taking the best of the old with the best of the new.

  • I can’t stand the idea of electing anyone for 15 years. What’s the point in electing someone if it’s next to impossible to hold them to account. If party lists are used, then these Elected Peers will be appointed in every way but name.

    Ex-MPs and other naked party political appointments should sit in proportions that reflect a parties recent electoral performance, but there’s no need to start calling them elected or setting a quotas for the number of political and non-political lords. I would have thought if MPs could agree on what appointments are political or not, we should aim for as many non-political Lords as possible to compensate for the fact that our MP’s are nowadays professional politicians.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Dec '11 - 9:29pm

    If there’s an elected Lords and you don’t want party hacks in it, then don’t vote for them.

    Isn’t that obvious?

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Dec '11 - 9:46pm

    Don’t use party lists is the obvious answer to some of these objections – especially not closed lists.
    STV isn’t the panacea it’s sometimes portrayed as — most people are just voting for parties, after all — but it would enable individuals, within and outside parties, to make their pitch. If we don’t elect those people, then — as Matthew suggests — that’s our look-out.

  • Being an expert should in no way entitle you to more say on issues on which you are not an expert. [e.g. Professor Winston – expert on fertility medicine, not an expert on taxation, yet gets to vote on everything.] Dan is right, this is what select committees are for.

  • I remain of the view that an AV House of Constituencies and PR Senate of National Government is the best way forward.

  • “and collapse the quality of our legislation.”

    As the current system gave us (among other things) the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (described but Judges in official judges as – I think – incomprehensible and contradictory) this can count as one of the worst reasons in defence of the current system ever 🙂

  • Select members of the second chamber through a national lottery. Before you dismiss the idea as being worthy of the Monster Raving Loony Party think about it. The selection mechanism already exists. If there was a special draw with tickets costing, say, £10 each, it would be financially available to pretty well everyone, but at the same time people without the slightest interest in doing the job would be disinclined to enter. It would be democratic, in that everyone who entered stood an equal chance (only one ticket to be purchased by any individual per draw). There would be no vested interests, no party placemen and women. The chamber would be representative of the political views of the population as a whole. It would not only not cost anything but would make the government money which could be used for salaries and training. The expertise argument would be covered because many of those selected would have their own areas of particular knowledge. It could be phased in as fast or as slowly as deemed sensible so that the idea could be tested to see how successful it was. A term of 15 years seems about right, paying the same salary as an MP and with pension rights at the end of the term, but with the same sanctions as an employer has against any employee who does not do their job. By-elections for death, resignation, or sacking would be no problem. Perhaps I’ve missed a massive flaw, and obviously it won’t happen because it takes power away from the political parties and the establishment. I hope, though, that whatever reform there is it abolishes the aristocratic nomenclature so that ‘Lords’, ‘Barons’ etc. become people with initials after their names – say MP-L (Member of Parliament – Lords) if we want to maintain tradition in some respect.

  • Robin McGhee 28th Dec '11 - 9:10am

    Wow. It’s early! OK, let’s get responding.

    A lot of people seem to have cottoned on to this point about experts. Experts can vote on anything, including the stuff they’re not expert in. This is bad because the experts are unelected.

    Well that’s true, but as I say in the article, the point of the Lords is to provide scrutiny of legislation, rather than a power of veto. A small group of people with serious insider knowledge and understanding of the issue contribute to the quality of debate. That’s the point of them. The result is a legislature incomparably improved in its ability to debate things. As for the voting aspect, well as I’ve said that’s not the main function of the Lords. But in my view, in practice the Lords is made up of exceptionally bright people interested in serious debate, not the party-political scorers of innumerable points we would get if the Lords was elected. For this reason, they would generally go with the view they were most convinced by as expounded by the specialists. So long as the specialists represent a broad swathe of opinion in their field, all would be well here: the votes would reflect the truth, and what is best for the country.

    Matthew Huntbach: no. In practice, as Charles and Stephen W have implied, appointment to a high level on a major party list means it is totally inevitable you will be elected. Say you were appointed (and it would be appointment) to the top of the Labour list in the north-east. I mean, that’s just the same as being given a fifteen-year peerage isn’t it? Come on guys. Surely you can see that democracy has to work in practice. Just because somebody’s name appears on a list on a ballot paper it doesn’t necessarily give them any more legitimacy than if they were appointed to the Lords anyway. We may as well stick with having appointments based on strong record and length of service rather than greasing up to the right people. For God’s sake just concentrate on getting PR in the Commons.

    One further point I was going to make- consider it a blogger’s cut- is that the House of Lords has in fact been a champion of Liberal Democrat values over the last decade or so, and very often against the notional champions of democracy, the House of Commons. 48 day detention, for example. No prizes for guessing which minions were whipped through to pass that drivel and which House threw it out with the rest of the legislative rubbish.

  • James Graham 28th Dec '11 - 9:55am

    “the House of Lords does not really legislate in a conventional sense”

    Define “conventional”. Because the House of Lords most certainly does legislate, currently it amends legislation more than the House of Commons. And the terms by which it does are entirely bound via conventions (which are, admittedly, breaking down – mostly because those conventions were established to regulate a largely hereditary system which has now been largely removed).

    “it does not veto”

    Yet that is precisely what numerous peers are now threatening to do over House of Lords reform. It is an odd argument, yet peers appear to believe this is the one issue which they feel they have a right to overrule the government over. Could self interest possibly have something to do with it?

    “By electing the Lords we will be destroying the expert groups who do most of its important work and replacing them with worthless party hacks who are only there to further their careers”

    What expert groups? According to research conducted by Unlock Democracy (declaration: I work for them), just 40% of cross bench peers count as experts – around 10% of the total. And they tend to have appalling voting records. It is the “worthless party hacks” who do all the grunt work in the Lords.

    If you wan experts in policy making, here’s a thought: why not invite them? Since when do you have to give them a life peerage to involve them in policy making? Why not recruit the best experts in each policy area for each job, rather than make do with whoever managed to survive the appointments process 5 years ago?

    “when the Commons complains, it will be correctly told it has less legitimacy, and can get stuffed.”

    Legally speaking, it is the Lords who will be told to get stuffed in that situation because the Parliament Act will still apply.

    But do I agree that an elected second chamber would pressure the House of Commons to raise its game? Absolutely. And do I agree that a chamber elected by PR would raise questions about the legitimacy of first past post? Almost certainly.

    What I can’t fathom is why anybody in good conscience would regard either of those things to be a bad thing.

  • Bill le Breton 28th Dec '11 - 10:27am

    Well Done Ruth!
    Campaign, campaign, campaign.

  • jedibeeftrix 28th Dec '11 - 11:14am

    @ Robin – “For God’s sake just concentrate on getting PR in the Commons.”

    That is where I want PR least, for I positively love the adversarial form of majoritarian politics it breeds, and it would seem the public tend to agree with me.

    Clegg new this when the coalition agreement was drawn up, and it is time for the rest of you to understand this too, FPTP is here to stay in the Commons.

    Continuing to waste time and effort on the matter will be time and effort that could be usefully employed elsewhere.

    I realise that lib-dem’s are almost genetically predisposed to pointy-headed constitutional tinkering, so if you must then I would suggest:
    1. Open Primaries in the Commons
    2. Open recall
    3. Some form of PR electoral system in the Lords


  • James touches on this but as important as whether/how its elected is what the Lords does.

    At the moment it is almost exact mirror image of the Commons – ie it can start legislation, as the same three readings plus committee stage process for legislation. Should a reformed Lords have those powers or should it be configured in a different way.

    Personally I’d like to see it where the “Lords” is a revieiwing & scrutiny chamber but all legislation starts in the commons then goes to a reviewing process in the Lords. The Lords could also have a function something similar to the Law Commission of reviewing areas of law and making recommendations for legislation (ideally with some sort of requirement for the Commons to consider those).

    I don’t have a problem with the Lords having a veto power but maybe at a threshold of more than 50% so it is used in particularly rare circumstances.

  • As has been said previously on this subject, the Lords could call in experts to advise them.

  • @Robin McGhee

    You don’t explain how the proposed 80-20 elected-appointed house loses its ability to call on expert knowledge to inform the debate.

    As another contributor pointed out, the alleged experts form only a minority of the crossbenchers, meaning that they can easily fit into the 20% appointed slice, with more than enough room for grandees and elder statesmen left over.

    The effect of electing the remaining 80% is that we will be given the choice between voting for the party hacks, or for somebody else. The status quo simply gives us a house filled mainly with party hacks we have no opportunity to reject. Yes, as you point out the fellow at the top of any Labour list for the North East is effectively appointed, but is that person not appointed with democratic approval?

    Of course, I regard such safe seats as the rotten boroughs of our time, but we won’t reform those by failing to achieve Lords reform. And it is apparent that any talk of Commons reform is off the agenda until the 2020s anyway, because of the rather dismal showing at the AV referendum.

  • Richard Swales 28th Dec '11 - 7:03pm

    Has it been decided whether it is going to be open or closed lists? In a place like the North East, which is presumably going to have about 5 or 6 Lords per each 100 elected (I bet we have a far lower percentage under the current system) if you have open lists * then being at the top of the printed Labour list doesn’t guarantee you are going to be in the top – the system actually starts to have more of the advantages of STV.

    * Open lists means that as well as a party, you choose a (number of) candidate(s) from that party. This way, the voters of that party determine the order of the list. Sometimes there is minimum number of “individual” votes you need to get to override the original party list ordering which is sometimes a relatively high number and sometimes relatively low, so the details are important here.

  • Can anybody advise me if the party will fight by-elections to the House of Lords or will they be deemed too expensive?

  • Robin McGhee 28th Dec '11 - 10:23pm

    Thanks everyone for the very intelligent discussion. This is a really, really nerdy topic. But that doesn’t make it unimportant. As Ruth says, Clegg shouldn’t actually be concentrating on this at all- in public. It’s something for Whitehall battles and broadsheet opinion columns. And party blogs.

    On the 80/20 split. I can certainly see the arguments, which are very good, in favour of this. But I think it ignores a more subtle point about expertise. The House of Lords should be- and to a great extent is- composed of the cream of politicians on its politicised benches. Man for man, it contains far more political talent than the House of Commons. For this reason, I think electing the ‘political’ bit of the Lords is rather pointless, since they would nearly certainly do a worse job than the ones who are already there. Bear in mind an elected Lords would just be used as a springboard to get into the Commons- not even its supporters deny that.

    On the need for a second chamber and its electoral system. Personally I utterly fail to understand how anyone could want a second chamber which replicates the electoral system of the first. What on earth would it do? It would have basically the same make up all the time. Having a different electoral system for each chamber means you are saying that the will of the people can be expressed in two ways, each somehow equally legitimate…? Hm. Unicameralism is too much though, there’d be no breaks at all; that’s why the system we have, of a scrutinising and delaying second chamber, is the best one.

    Oh and for the record I don’t think this is going to get through. 80/20 maybe, but a fully elected Lords just doesn’t have the support it needs in the press or Parliament to actually be passed. There’d be too much controversy.

  • @Robin McGhee

    I think you have a very… shall we say optimistic view of the current composition of the Lords. I’d need to see some evidence before I’d accept the argument that the Lords contains, man for man, more political talent than the Commons. I’d also need considerable persuasion before I’d believe that elected representatives would inevitably be worse at the job than the chosen ones handpicked by Blair, Brown, now Cameron. I just don’t accept the notion that either of those three had any great wisdom that set them above the electorate at large. Although, I’m sure if you asked either of them, they would.

    Kind of what went wrong with their premierships, really. Blair and Brown anyway. Cam… well, we’ll see.

    Anyway, the point is that I don’t accept the argument that the people need to have their representatives in the revisioning chamber chosen for them.

    I would also argue that the point about an elected Lords being a springboard for the Commons is a non-issue. Local government is similarly a springboard, shall we abolish elected councils? Regardless, it isn’t a bad thing to go into the Commons with fifteen years experience reviewing legislation. Although the fifteen year waiting period for an MP’s career that may or may not happen would probably be an issue.

    Finally, the point about electoral systems. Obviously we don’t want two houses drawn from the same constituencies with the same method. That would be a constitutional crisis in the making right there. But I would argue that it is perfectly possible to have two elected bodies representing the people in different ways.

    As a revisioning chamber, the Lords needs to be less adversarial than the Commons, and would benefit from a greater representation of special interest or minority parties in order to introduce a wider range of representative views to the reviewing stage of legislating. PR, as I’m sure we’re all aware, would achieve this and create a chamber with a very different character from that of the Commons, more nuanced even though it is drawing on the same electorate.

    Combined with all the other constitutional points, the election in thirds, the large multi-member constituencies, the remaining presence of the 20% appointed members, the retention of the Parliament Act… the legitimacy of the Commons is not challenged and I just don’t see a convincing argument against extending representation and the democratic principle up to the revisioning chamber in this way.

  • jedibeeftrix 29th Dec '11 - 12:24pm

    “Combined with all the other constitutional points, the election in thirds, the large multi-member constituencies, the remaining presence of the 20% appointed members, the retention of the Parliament Act… the legitimacy of the Commons is not challenged”

    Agreed, an argument i made above.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Dec '11 - 10:36pm

    Robin McGhee

    Matthew Huntbach: no. In practice, as Charles and Stephen W have implied, appointment to a high level on a major party list means it is totally inevitable you will be elected. Say you were appointed (and it would be appointment) to the top of the Labour list in the north-east. I mean, that’s just the same as being given a fifteen-year peerage isn’t it?

    Let me repeat my point:

    “If there’s an elected Lords and you don’t want party hacks in it, then don’t vote for them.”

    If the Labour list is full of party hacks and being on top of the Labour list means you get elected, then OBVIOUSLY people ARE voting for party hacks, aren’t they? If people sais “We’re not voting Labour because their list is just full of party hacks”, then the party hacks would not get elected.

    Under the first-past-the-post system, there’s some compulsion to vote for a party hack to avoid “splitting the vote” and letting the other party hack in (the one you dislike more), but there’s no such compulsion with a PR system. So, a sort of Labourish-but-not-party-hacks list could be established for people to vote for if they are inclined to the Labour Party but don’t like the party hacks on the official Labour list. Alternatively, the parties might feel if their lists are just full of party hacks they’ll lose votes, and therefore make some effort to have lists whuich are not just party hacks. Well, they would do this if people followed my advice “if you don’t want party hacks, don’t vote for them”.

    I would personally prefer the Commons to be elected by STV but the Lords elected by a list system. This would actually make the Lords very much like it is now, because its members would in effect be appointed by the parties, but the exact number for each party decided by the people. It would be in the interest of the parties to include in their lists people with some particular expertise. Using a list system rather than STV would help the “great expert but not very well known by the general public” person get elected. There could be lists of bishops and lists of hereditary peers for those who like that sort of thing – if you REALLY want to see them still in the Lords, all you have to do is vote for them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jan '12 - 8:23pm

    Dane Clouston

    Voters mostly prefer to avoid party lists, but of course most political activists will always prefer them

    Most voters and most party activists in the UK (bearing in mind most party activists are activists for the two biggest parties) have little idea about electoral systems so little idea about what this means, so to suggest they have a considered opinion is wrong. The major political commentators clearly don’t have a clue, because when they turn their attention to electoral reform (which is not often) they tend to write as if proportional representation means party lists systems, even though the main group advocating proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats, wants STV, not a fixed list system. I am not aware of ANYONE in the UK who is actively advocating list systems.

    My point was that if appointment had an advantage, which was what was being argued, then the benefit of that can be obtained by having a list system, because, as was said, a list system means those at the top of the list are in effect appointed. I was certainly not advocating list systems in general, only suggesting that there may be a benefit in using such a system for the second house when the first house is elected by STV.

  • “Like Cromwell, they would abolish the Lords outright, to be replaced with a Senate or not at all.”

    Cromwell did not “abolish the Lords outright”. This was done by the House of Commons (or what remained of it) in 1649, under the Commonwealth, when Cromwell was only a general (though a popular and influential one). When Cromwell obtained what amounted to regal power for himself, his Parliament (and that of his son) contained a House of Lords — admittedly not so called, though its members were given the title of ‘Lord ___’.

    Personally, I can’t see the issue with a fully functioning bicameral system. If both Houses are elected, then both should, broadly speaking, reflect the will of the people and the likelihood of what the Americans call ‘gridlock’ is low. If the people don’t speak with one voice, then presumably they are asking for a little inefficiency in the system. If they repent of that decision, they can make it up at the next elections.

  • Why not keep a set of 20% (or any other number) of non-political ‘experts’, but give them all the privileges of the House *except* that of voting on legislation? If their sole purpose is to comment and advise, then they can use their expertise to influence their fellow Lords/Senators, but not having an explicit popular backing, they would not be able to cast a vote representative of those people.

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