The compromiser’s dilemma: House of Lords reform

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentYou propose something. Someone objects to it, giving many reasons. You offer to make some changes to meet some of the objections. A deal is made and progress is achieved.

A perfectly normal sequence of events, both inside and outside politics and whether the matter is as mundane as what to eat for dinner tomorrow or as public as the wording of Parliamentary legislation.

One big risk, however, is that you offer compromises which are too small to win over extra support yet also too big to keep the enthusiasm of the idea’s original supporters. The AV referendum is a classic of the kind. For years many pro-electoral reform campaigners, in Labour, in the Liberal Democrats, in the Electoral Reform Society and elsewhere, insisted that pushing for STV was unrealistic and instead AV. STV, they said, was too idealistic; it would not get the Labour Party’s support but compromise on AV and that support could be garnered.

When it came to it, offering up AV did not do much in the way of winning support from Labour and others, and did a fair amount to weaken enthusiasm from the keenest supporters of electoral reform.

Reform of the House of Lords now presents exactly the same dilemma. It is rarely remarked on, but the proposals put forward by Nick Clegg and David Cameron already contain many significant offers of compromise. The widely attacked 15 year term of office is an idea, for example, taken from the 2000 Wakenham Report into Lords reform. A Royal Commission drawing on both Labour and Conservative members, with a third of its members from the Upper House and even a Bishop thrown in too, it proposed the 15 year idea.

Yet how has the 15 year idea been received this time round? Has it been welcomed by people as a good compromise, sensibly picking up on the consensus reached by a previous cross-party group and reflecting the concerns of its members from the Lords? Hardly.

Re-presenting this previous compromise idea has both attracted snipping from keen Lords reformers and almost no flicker of welcome from those hostile to Lords reform. As with the choice of AV as the voting system to present in a referendum, far from being a good compromise it has turned out to be the worst of all worlds.

Hence the dilemma: if opponents so readily and acerbically reject the previous suggested compromise, is offering further compromises really going to win them over?

That is why there is a particular appeal to the argument Guy Lodge and Michael Kenny have made to up the ante in the arguments for reform:

The case for Lords reform needs … to be rooted in an account of how power should be most effectively and sustainably exercised in a 21st century democracy. This debate is happening at a time when sections of the public who have become deeply disillusioned by how elites controlling the core institutions of our economic and political systems have misused the power entrusted to them. What links the crises that have recently engulfed the banks, parliament and the media is that they have ultimately been triggered by concentrations of unaccountable power.

The reforms we most need are those that begin to challenge and open up these forms of power ‘hoarding’. Electing the House of Lords is a small, but actually quite important, and hugely symbolic, step in this direction. Of course it is not a panacea for the problems of irresponsible bankers and over-mighty media moguls.

But by creating a stronger, and more legitimate, second chamber, we would have a better chance of holding the power concentrated in our ‘core executive’ to account. We might also have a wing of the legislature that would be sufficiently powerful to stand aside from, and question, the orthodoxies that led, for instance, to light-touch regulation of our banks and the mountain of household indebtedness that fuelled the political economy of the previous era.

It is an appealing argument, even if one not without drawbacks. In particular, an attack on the unaccountable hoarding of power will sound to many Lords like an attack on themselves. Even some (anti-reform) Liberal Democrat peers have taken to complain in public about how much they dislike reformers criticising them.

The big risk is that such attacks therefore drive away some who might otherwise be won over to reform and that it makes the passage of legislation through Parliament harder, rather than easier.

However, sometimes taking a risk is what it takes to succeed.


* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Evans 18th Jul '12 - 2:19pm

    … and taking too big a risk will drive us into two and a half more years of failure.

  • Thanks Mark, I wondered where the 15 year compromise had originated from.

  • Denis Cooper 18th Jul '12 - 3:33pm

    Rather like astronomers getting stuck with the idea that planets must have a circular motion, you’re stuck with the idea that there must be two separate elections for the two chambers.

    And rather like astronomers finding that if they broke with that assumption and instead based their theory on elliptical motions, you’d find that choosing members of the two chambers simultaneously through the same election would resolve a lot of difficulties and remove the ever-increasing burden of complexity arising from the need to compromise.

    At present we have FPTP for the Commons, and no prospect of that being changed, but it should be asked on what basis an MP elected by FPTP in a constituency can convincingly claim the right to be the sole representative of that body of citizens in their Parliament.

    After the 2010 general election perhaps the man who could most convincingly put forward that claim to exclusivity would be Steve Rotheram, who’d managed to persuade 72% of those who’d cast votes in Liverpool Walton that they should choose him to be the sole parliamentary representative for that constituency, but even he only got 39% of registered electors to vote for him.

    Only about a third of MPs are elected with the support more than half of those who vote, let alone those who could vote, and apparently at the other end of the spectrum from Steve Rotheram there was Simon Wright in Norwich South who was supported by only 29% of those who voted, actively chosen by just 19% of the registered electors.

    Looking at those who were runners-up in their constituencies in 2010 many could be described as “nearly-elected”, at the extreme getting more than 99% of the number of votes received by the winner, while at the other extreme there was a tail who got barely a quarter as many votes as the winner; on average the candidate who came second got something like 65% of the number of votes received by the candidate who came first:

    In terms of democratic legitimacy on the simple measure of number of votes received, there must be extensive overlap between the distribution for candidates who came first and the distribution for candidates who came second, with numerous cases where the runner-up in one constituency had won more votes than the candidate who had come first in another constituency and therefore been rewarded with a seat in Parliament.

    With its crude “winner-takes-all” rule the present system of First Past The Post is completely blind to such anomalies, but at least one eye could be opened by adding on Second Past The Post to form an elected second chamber.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Jul '12 - 5:15pm

    The authors write: “A more dynamic and populist case – of the kind that a politician like Lloyd George would have assembled – would resonate with authentic public concerns about the perceived unaccountable nature of government in the UK, and the increasingly apparent hoarding of power among a set of interlocking political, economic and media elites.”


  • Mark Argent 18th Jul '12 - 5:20pm

    I think the 15 year idea is a good one.

    One strength of the existing Lords is that — at its best — the members of the Lords are encouraged to act out of a perception of what is in the interests of the people of the UK, rather than part-political needs. One weakness of elections is that they put pressure on politicians to curry favour and popularity at the expense of wisdom. A non-renewable period of 15 years helps members of the proposed upper house to carry forward this mindset.

    It also means that the upper house can’t be simply a re-run of the lower. It’s not good for democracy to have a massive majority in the Commons (as Thatcher had in 1979 and Blair in 1997). Nor is it good for two houses to have electoral similar electoral cycles but simply out of step which invites one to block or frustrate the other. The 15 year term where a third of members change every five years invites the upper house to have a revising role holding within itself a sense of continuity across changes in the lower house.

    15 years seems a very good and balanced system, Where it might be improved is to find a way for it to be more than “party grandees” chosen on a list system, so it becomes truly possible for independents to be chosen as well. That might need some mechanism for people to be nominated for possible election in each region and for information about all those nominated to be circulated — at public expense.

    A radical addition to Lords reform might be for there to be a ban on private funding of candidates “campains”, so that this is instead handled from public funds in a way which avoids candidates with access to more money having more influence.

  • Denis Cooper 20th Jul '12 - 10:07am

    Dane Clousten –

    “second past the post in the Senate would be a recipe for guaranteed conflict between the two chambers.”

    It would be a recipe for guaranteed and hopefully effective opposition to the government in the second chamber, to compensate for what is usually a lack of effective opposition in a first chamber elected by FPTP.

    But as the second chamber would clearly have less democratic legitimacy than the first, with the average SMP having received maybe 65% of the votes received by the average MP, there could be no question about which chamber should have primacy.

  • Denis Cooper 21st Jul '12 - 12:27pm

    Dane Clousten,

    What happens in the constituency is that after the election the people have their MP, as now, and they also have their second representative in Parliament, their SMP, and over the following years they can see how each of those two parliamentary representatives perform in their service.

    In one case the SMP might so outshine the MP that at the next election he came first not second.

    In another case the SMP might prove to be poor, just as some MPs prove to be poor, and at the next election he would risk being relegated to third or lower position, with another candidate taking away his seat in the second chamber.

    Obviously in many constituencies it would create a new dynamic when it mattered who came second in the election, not just who came first as now.

  • Denis Cooper 21st Jul '12 - 12:45pm

    Incidentally your failure to get elected was of course under FPTP, clearly exposing the reality that you were not the most popular of the candidates; but if instead you’d been elected under STV by virtue of second or lower preference votes then it could still be the case that you weren’t among the most popular of the candidates, that reality merely being disguised by the operation of the PR system. If PR did not lead to the election of candidates who wouldn’t have been elected under FPTP then it would be pretty pointless.

  • Denis Cooper 21st Jul '12 - 8:20pm

    Yes, but the point is that STV for the second chamber, Senate if you like, would mean that some people would get into it who wouldn’t have got into it if the system of election had been FPTP; so putting people into the second chamber because they came second in a constituency poll for a general election wouldn’t be radically different in that regard.

  • Denis Cooper 22nd Jul '12 - 7:22pm

    That largely depends on the number of seats to be won in a constituency under STV, and as that number is increased there are opposing factors at work.

    The greater the number of seats the more strictly proportional the outcome will become, but on the other hand the larger the constituency the greater the campaigning disadvantages suffered by independent and small party candidates compared to the candidates of larger parties, and therefore the less likely that they’ll win enough support to get elected.

    Moreover the greater the number of representatives the more psychologically remote from their constituents they may become, as we already see with MEPs elected on the d’Hondt system for multi-member regional constituencies.

    The SPTP part of FPTP-SPTP would be a significant step forward for independent and small party candidates because they could get started in Parliament by coming second in the poll and getting into the second chamber, and if they were any good in the role then that should help them build more support in their constituencies.

    It may also be worth mentioning that FPTP-SPTP would produce a much more proportional result overall when numbers of parliamentary representatives in both chambers are added together,

    For example LibDem candidates got 23% of the votes in the 2010 general election, and apparently they came second in 242 constituencies; so on top of the 57 MPs they would have got 242 SMPs, taken together 299 parliamentary representatives out of a total of 1300 across both chambers, which as it happens also = 23%.

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