Tammy Duckworth and the importance of second chamber reform

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One issue that has not come up during this campaign, but should have, is second chamber reform.

Firstly, may I say that our House of Lords has many, many fine members and does a fantastic job.

But there is a problem. We can’t get rid of it. It fails on the five democratic questions that dear old Tony Benn used to repeat endlessly:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you use it?

To whom are you accountable?

How do we get rid of you?

At the very least we should be ending the right of religious leaders from one specific Christian denomination to sit in the chamber (a peculiarity we share only with Iran).

But I would like to either see an elected second chamber or simply, like Sweden, Denmark, Bulgaria, Greece, New Zealand and Peru, a single chamber.

I still hear the old tired arguments in favour of the Lords and against an elected second chamber: Oh, it does a great job. We don’t want more elected politicians. An elected second chamber would just a carbon copy of the House of Commons. It would get full of “tired old political hacks”.

Well, on the later point, please just go and look at the House of Lords. It is full of tired old political hacks anyway!

But all those questions can be answered by looking at the United States of America and the US Senate.

Firstly, it should be noted that the American model has deep flaws. As our Shirley Williams once reminded an audience of which I was part, as soon as members of the US Senate take up their seats, they have to start finding well north of a quarter of a million dollars per week – every week – to fund their re-election.

That said, the dear old founding fathers came up with a solution for the USA which has established two very distinctive chambers. The 435 House members are elected every two years, on comparatively small constituencies. There are two members of the Senate for each state and they are elected, in turns, every six years. These differences lead to a sharp, energetic House of Representatives and a very deliberative, thoughtful (some might say sleepy) Senate.

And as for tired old political hacks, look at some of the great Senators: Ted Kennedy, elected at 30 years old, John McCain, Daniel Inouye, Olympia Snowe, Chuck Shumer etc etc. – Some of the finest politicians in American history with long lists of accomplishments behind them.

But I would point to one of the newest members of the US Senate as a fine example of a democratic representative: Tammy Duckworth (pictured above). I have seen this 51 year old injured combat veteran from Illinois operating on the senate floor. She is a bit like the class milk monitor. She beetles about chatting cheerfully with members from both sides of the aisle and staff members.

“Tired old hack” she is not.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Richard Underhill 11th Dec '19 - 10:38am

    In the 1997 general election Labour was elected with a large majority in the Commons while promising to abolish the hereditary peers. They negotiated with a Cecil and compromised. The Tory leader, William Hague, sacked the Tory leader in the Lords for negotiating behind his back. The Labour leader in the Lords repeatedly said that they would complete the process in line with the Labour manifesto. In the 2001 and 2005 general elections Labour achieved large majorities in the Commons but did not remove the other hereditary peers.
    Former Liberal leader David Steel said that the system of bye-elections created was laughable and moved a bill for reform. He was told that no member of the Lords would want to take voluntary retirement because they would want to be paid off. The bill eventually became law. Some Lords did take voluntary retirement, including Shirley Williams, a former Cabinet member and a life peer. David Steel has announced his retirement from the Lords at this general election for the Commons.
    The Labour government did make other changes, including removing the Law Lords from the legislature and transferring them to the newly created Supreme Court with no other changes. They also changed the role of the Lord Chancellor. The position of Lords’ Speaker has been created.
    In the 2019 general election the Labour Party manifesto includes a policy of abolishing the House of Lords, but without a timetable for implementation. The current Labour leader has announced other priorities, so if the voters support a Labour government, a Labour minority government or a Labour – SNP coalition they would need to pass legislation through the Lords.

  • Dilettante Eye 11th Dec '19 - 12:13pm

    It was an excellent speech by Tony Benn at the Oxford Union.
    You can see it here.


    And Tony Benn was absolutely spot on.

  • Not so sure the Senate is that great an example of how to do bicameralism One reason for the legislative paralysis that afflicts the US is because of the why the House/Senate is structure. See various Robert Caro works about LBJ for further details 🙂

  • The U.K. is a failed state and we should say so. We should be suing for equal votes, even if we lose first time. The Lords must go. Either we retain this territory or we cede it to Farage. That should concentrate minds!

    Can I suggest that if you designed a state from scratch, having a hereditary head of state, an unelected upper house (with religious input) and a lower house selected on the basis of a broken system that regularly returns members who do not have a majority of support in their districts might not be the best look.

    For what it’s worth I’d say keep the constituencies but subject to stv/run-offs until someone gets 50% + 1 (or more), and elect an upper house from the parts of the U.K. at different times but showing the parity of esteem we’re told is extended to the Scots, Welsh and NIrish. It need only be small, and with a veto.

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