The Independent View: How to implement full Lords reform, now that the referendum is lost

Rupert Read, the Green Party Co-ordinator – East of England, writes:

Dear LibDems

It was good to work with you, and with LabourYes, with UKIP, with people from all parties and none, during the referendum campaign just concluded. We – the YES side – have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.

What to do now? The answer, surely, is that it is time to press hard for real full Lords reform, with PR as the electoral system. That would be a true prize. It is the very least the Tories can deliver for you / for Britain, having behaved so entirely disgracefully during the referendum.

This country has been waiting for Lords reform for exactly a century now. It would be historically fitting if it was liberals who made it happen. The timing is right – well, except in the sense that real Lords reform is obviously utterly overdue! But the timing is right in that the government’s plans for Lords reform are coming within the next month or two anyway. And the case for proportionality is of course very strong; PR is democratic in a way that AV just isn’t. Upper chambers across most of the world are proportional.
Now for the crucial point that I want to make. We – you – have to stop the particular system that is introduced for election of the reformed upper house from being tarrable with the brush that has – unjustly, but severely – tarred AV. That rules out STV (and, obviously, AV Plus). Preferential voting is doomed as a system for Westminster, for a generation.

It is vital the electoral system proposed and then used for the upper house is simple, and doesn’t conjure up memories for voters of AV, which they have been taught is complicated…

This suggests that the system used should be the Scots or Welsh system, or AMS, or a system of pure PR on a regional or county basis. The great advantage of the Scots (or Welsh system, similarly) is that it allows some cross-party identification (cf. ‘second-vote Green’). It gives scope in and of itself for building a rainbow ‘progressive alliance’.

But the great advantage of the latter two systems are that they are the simplest of all. Under AMS (the Additional Member System, which is Green Party policy here in England), one simply votes for the candidate one wants, and then proportionality is ensured by a substantial top-up. Under what I am calling ‘pure PR’ – a system with party lists in a multi-member constituency – one simply votes for a Party, and seats are allocated in proportion to votes cast.

Either such system would yield real proportionality to the upper chamber, which the lower chamber so palpably lacks and would have continued to lack even had AV been passed by the electorate yesterday.

The argument that will be used against both systems is the Party-list element of them. But this argument is far weaker for the upper chamber than for the lower chamber. Why? Because the upper chamber in effect at present is simply one gigantic party-list (of patronage appointments). Using PR of the form(s) I am describing for the reformed upper chamber would lead to a massive reduction in ‘Party lists’, relative to the status quo. And perhaps having some element of ‘Party list’ retained would actually be good. Because a truly reformed upper house – a Senate or some such – ought to be 100% elected; but there are existing Lords who, with their great experience, should probably be retained in the reformed upper house. The easiest way for our political leaders to enable them to be retained while democratising the upper house would be: to place them in descending order of merit on their Party list…

There should be no grandfathering of Lords into the reformed upper chamber. They should have to stand for election; they should have to achieve some level of democratic legitimacy. Using AMS or ‘pure PR’ (or the Scottish system) would be the best way in which to do this.

I hope, LibDems, my onetime fellow-Party-colleagues, that you will seize this moment, and, from the ashes, pull out of the fireplace something brilliant and historic. PR for the upper chamber is surely now a prize – at last – within reach.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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49 Comments

  • A lot of people (especially young people) were put off AV simply because it was too small a change and they saw it as the same either way. Plenty of people I know abstained or voted no just because they felt it made no real difference. Not because it’s “complicated” – AMS is equally complicated, not necessarily because of preferential voting – NI uses it and is happy with STV, mayoral elections use it and people seem okay with SV.

    So I would disagree – STV is still okay for the Lords imo, it’s a big change and people either want a big change or none at all. AV+ is probably out just because of the name. That said, AMS isn’t too bad, even though I wouldn’t ever choose it myself.

  • What are the realistic prospects of reform now Cameron has said he won’t support it?

  • “have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.”

    I noticed that you (very wisely) didn’t state which campaign though.

    “Tories can deliver for you / for Britain, having behaved so entirely disgracefully during the referendum”
    Pots, kettles & glasshouses

    “which they have been taught is complicated”
    Or perhaps they just thought it wasn’t worth it? Or perhaps after being told they were bnp, Nazis, dinosaurs etc they didn’t warm to your campaign.

    Aside from all of the self denial items above, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. It might also have an advantage as the main organiser of any campaign may not have been telling people for years that it wasn’t a suitable system.

  • “We – the YES side – have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.”

    At some point you may have to admit that the people simply did not want it. The yes campaign was not immune from lies and exagerations (although the No camp did probably win the award for this..). A system that even the ERS had stated could be less proportional was not seen as a step forwards by enough people.

    As for Lords reform, a truly proportional house would be my preference, if AM is the simplest way to achieve this then push for it. I would still have some element of appointed cross bench members, sitting ex-Officio. The charter for the Lords could enable them to introduce amendments but not to vote allowing the arguments for keeping their wisdom to be met without breaking the proportionality of the house.

    A big problem will be length of tenure. Personally I do not favour long tenures and would prefer the seats to be filled after each general election. If the turnaround is too long we could end up with too much stalemate between houses.

  • “Because the upper chamber in effect at present is simply one gigantic party-list (of patronage appointments).”

    To a degree, although because Peers are appointed for life it’s impossible for party leaders to discipline them by threatening to kick them off the list, avoiding one of the main disadvantages of the party list system.

    “The easiest way for our political leaders to enable them to be retained while democratising the upper house would be: to place them in descending order of merit on their Party list…”

    They could do that; to imagine that they actually will is, however, a little bit naive.

    Anyway, what nobody seems to be asking about the House of Lords is: what’s so great about democracy? Why is democracy so inherently good that democratising the Lords is automatically a good thing? Surely supporters of reform should have to prove that a democratic HoL would be more effective at doing its job, rather than simply assuming that “democratic” and “good” are somehow synonymous?

  • Simon McGrath 7th May '11 - 9:30pm

    Or we could try and use our fire power in the coalition to introduce some actually popular policies. Outside political circles no one at all is interested in reforming the lords.

  • Simon McGrath 7th May '11 - 9:30pm

    Or we could try and use our fire power in the coalition to introduce some actually popular policies. Outside political circles no one at all is interested in reforming the lords.

  • Kevin Colwill 7th May '11 - 10:10pm

    Preference voting was supposed to be “sellable” because it kept smallish constituencies and a personal link between voter and their representative.

    In reality preference voting, including STV, creates more problems than it solves. A vote should be a positive endorsement of the candidate you want. Any departure from that it ends up looking somehow “iffy” and overtly tactical.

    My preferred option is a simple. An open party list in a multi-member constituency- one vote, one X, no top up, no voodoo voting.

    Just the realistic expectation that a party deserving of a seat could gain a seat and a party with overwhelming support could gain the overwhelming number of seats.

    Would the public support it for the commons? doubt it! Would they accept it as a system for voting in members to the second chamber? there’s a chance!

  • “We get an upper house largely elected by PR, because that’s the agreement …”

    Well, now we’re being told by the Tories that all that’s in the agreement is the appointment of a committee to look into it – not a commitment actually to reform the Lords. Are the Lib Dems in a position to force them to honour the agreement? I don’t see how.

  • Old Codger Chris 7th May '11 - 11:10pm

    These are wise words from Rupert Read. Although, as someone who voted No DESPITE the despicable Official No campaign, I have to say that the defeat was partly because AV is a rotten system.

    And yes, please do rule out STV. It’s a bit opaque and dodgy, and in a proportional system there should be no need for preferences.

    I agree with Kevin Colwill except I would go a stage further. Let’s have a FREE List, with voters allowed as many votes as there are seats in a constituency – and allowed to vote for candidates in different parties (and independents) if they wish. Parties could be allocated seats by the d’Hondt method. As for which candidate(s) on a party’s list win seats, simple Borda counting would suffice.

  • “We – the YES side – have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.”

    No you were defeated because your lies and propaganda didn’t resonate as effectively with the public as those of the NO campaign.

    As for House of Lords reform being within reach, you’re sadly mistaken. The coalition agreement was even vaguer and less committed to it than AV. The Tories even look like they could win an out right majority so the idea of forcing their hand on the issue is ludicrous. Even if Cameron is committed to the coalition, his back bencher’s aren’t and David Davis is itching for an excuse to break it up.

    I’m not convinced on any of the popular systems proposed for electing Lords. The only benefit of our upper chamber is that its members can’t be bullied by their party leadership (a particular problem with party lists). Election would also prevent cross-bencher’s who have even less party loyalty. The worst thing in our democracy is the political party and strengthening it in this way would be a terrible thing.

    One of the reasons the electorate rejected AV is they don’t want any more Nick Cleggs. He’s become the personification of broken promises not electoral pledges so much as of the dashed hopes that politicians could be different. It’s party (or rather inter-party) politics that’s brought him crashing to the ground and I don’t believe this country needs, or the electorate wants, more of the same. I could only be convinced the creation of Lords Electoral would be a good thing if they had to stand as independents, after already having been appointed (as Lords or as candidates) in a process relying on petitions.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th May '11 - 11:32pm

    A system that even the ERS had stated could be less proportional was not seen as a step forwards by enough people.

    Every single-member system is capable of being “less proportional” in some cases, compared to every other single-member system. That’s a consequence of Arrow’s theorem. They all have to have cases in which they screw up. The idea is to make those cases rare and unimportant (the best systems only screw up in the cases which are basically ties anyway, so it doesn’t really matter who gets elected).

  • “The idea is to make those cases rare and unimportant …”

    But as you must be aware, projections indicated that AV would have been less proportional than FPTP in three out of the last four general elections, so on your own criterion the electorate was absolutely right to reject AV.

  • “We – the YES side – have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.”

    I’m sorry for being blunt, but the yes side were defeated because AV is crap and raises as many questions about fairness as FPTP does. People don’t want to swap one rubbish system for another.

  • Matthew Hazell 8th May '11 - 1:34am

    We – the YES side – have been defeated by a farrago of money, lies and the worst of propaganda.

    Or, perhaps the public just didn’t want to change to AV. The whole claim that Yes was defeated by money and lies might have had some ring of truth to it if the margin had been 1 or 2%, but I don’t think you can really argue with a 38% margin of defeat. Smacks a little bit of sour grapes and toy-throwing.

    And, hang on a minute, didn’t the Yes campaign raise more money than No? Wasn’t it a little propagandic to trot out celebrities and have them opine about how we ought to have voted? Couldn’t it be called “lying” when certain prominent Yes members described their opponents as Nazis? Both sides had their flaws, both sides were as bad as each other in many regards. Lay off the holier-than-thou attitude; it doesn’t do anyone any favours at all.

    What to do now? The answer, surely, is that it is time to press hard for real full Lords reform, with PR as the electoral system.

    Firstly, what makes you think the majority of this country even wants an elected Lords? I don’t. Would the Lords work any better if it were elected? I’m not convinced that it would, just as I wasn’t convinced that AV was a better system than FPTP.

    Secondly, barely 40% of people bothered to vote in the AV referendum and local elections. About one third of people don’t even vote in UK parliamentary elections these days. Is Lords reform really going to re-engage people who don’t vote? I mean, I know and work with quite a few people who don’t bother to vote. When I ask them why they don’t vote, I have never once been told “oh, I would vote, if only we had an elected upper chamber”. Electoral reform, of any sort, is not going to get people re-engaged in our politics and democracy–particularly Lords reform. Before we discuss voting reform again, we need to get more people voting. In this regard, I think that if we’re going to copy Australia in anything, compulsory voting would be a better start than AV.

    Third, it seems totally illogical and contradictory to have had a referendum on AV for parliamentary elections, but not to suggest having one on Lords reform (which, arguably, is just as if not more important). Why ask people if they want to change one voting system, but then suggest that the introduction of another voting system should be just forced through by politicians, voters be damned? What’s the matter: scared you’ll lose again…!! 😉

    Fourth, how on earth do the Lib Dems (or any other party) have any mandate now to ask for/demand Lords reform? They have lost nearly 700 councillors, lost the AV referendum, seen their share of the vote collapse. They’re not in a position to demand concessions of any sort, let alone ones with vast constitutional implications.

  • Matthew Hazell 8th May '11 - 11:33am

    Rupert Read: The evidence suggests that the NO side had far more money than the YES side. The point is that the NO side haven’t told us how much money they raised BEFORE the date on which it became obligatory to do so. It looks like they raised millions, during that period.

    Since you don’t be able to prove that assertion one way or the other, it’s just an assertion, though, isn’t it? The fact remains that Yes declared more raised money than No, by a margin of about £1m (to the best of my knowledge). That’s a lot of money. Ultimately, it’s the Yes camp’s fault that it wasn’t spent properly or wisely enough to help them win… or at least lose with a dignified result!

    In any case, if the Yes campaign was daft enough to not also raise some money beforehand, whose fault is that? Is it the No campaign’s fault that they planned in advance for a referendum that everyone had plenty of notice was going to happen? Your attitude still smacks a little of sour grapes, I have to say.

  • @Rupert

    just a few minutes ago I wrote (on another thread) that I was really worried that Yes were failing to learn the lessons. Having just read the article you refer to I am even more worried that any future campaign will be run in the same manner and another chance of reform will be lost.

    At some point you will need to realise that:
    a. It is your job to persuade people of the benefits of change, the other side only have to show why you are wrong – they do not need to campaign for the existing system as it is already there.

    b. A referendum is not an election campaign and it is NOT a good idea to p*** off 30%+ of the voters at the start, however if you do that then it is an even sillier idea to start annoying the 60%+ plus that are left.

    c. You can moan as much as you want about the No lies/propaganda, but it didn’t take much effort to realise that Yes was cut from the same cloth. Tell the truth or say nothing.

    d. Listen when people tell you what went wrong (and there have been plenty of such comments on this site).

    Convincing yourself that it was all some right wing plot funded by millionaires and aided by Labour stooges may make you feel better, but it isn’t going to help you next time.

  • Interesting post. As someone who really wanted to see AV lower house and STV upper house (as in Australia) I am having to rethink now. I think Rupert might be right.

    Incidentally, an elected Lords was in the Tory manifesto and coalition agreement. If it isnt implemented, that for me is a deal-breaker. I am the most committed coalitionista, but if Cameron sinks Lords reform we should quit the government and force it through with Labour support instead.

  • Matthew Hazell 8th May '11 - 12:31pm

    [Y]our remarks will be shown to be simply false…

    We’ll see. For now, the fact is that, in the time period for declarations, Yes raised £1m more than No. All you have (at the moment) are guesses and assertions to the contrary.

    Also, NO had huge help in kind from the Tory Party.

    Ooh, those evil Tories… how dare they support the other side…! Yes had help from lots of other (albeit smaller) parties. It could have had help from more, but it chose to exclude UKIP until almost the last possible moment. And, in any case, so what? Is it the No campaign’s fault that the Tories happen to be good at campaigning? Would you be complaining about Tory help if they had been in favour of AV?

    Yes to AV lost, fair and square, by a rather large margin. It’s time to move on and stop beating the dead horse that is electoral reform. Start beating it again in 25 years or so.

  • “In a clear change of strategy for the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister has put “lofty” issues such as House of Lords reform on the back burner in favour of “bread and butter issues” which he believes are his only chance of reconnecting with voters.”
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8500392/Battered-Nick-Clegg-poised-for-summer-of-noise.html

  • I don’t believe an elected senate has to be representative of regions like a house of representatives should be, I’d be happy for the whole of the UK to be one constituency (or perhaps one for England, one for Scotland, one for Wales and one for Northern Ireland?).

  • Seriously, guys, if you think the public by and large is calling out for Lords reform, you are more disconnected from the common man/woman thank you think. People are worried about their standard of living falling, jobs, education, real bread and butter issues right now. Not the Lords.

    I’m all for Lords reform, but apart from political obsessives/anoraks like us, the public couldn’t care less at the moment. This is something to be tackled at the right time. And the longer you’re seen to be focusing on issues like this, the more disconnected people feel from you.

    This is just another Westminster bubble distraction. The public are calling out for the NHS to be saved, for the Tories to be reigned in, our public services protected, etc.

  • @ Rupert Read Posted 8th May 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Rupert, yes I did read it which is why I was so utterly gob smacked really (I read the LC one and then also looked at GWS and from there your own website – they all a have a similar take) so I stand by my comments.

    The failures that you talk about are mainly procedural (didn’t spend the money wisely, no organisation, wrong name for campaign), the errors I (and others on all of the sites) talk about is – for the want of a better word – dogma. I will be interested to see any new blogs from the Yes campaign where some of these most basic errors are discussed and incorporated – but that will only occur over time I feel.

    Also, I can’t believe that you made the statement “The official Electoral Commission document that everyone received didn’t help.” Are you suggesting that they lied? Or were they not on message and therefore not “progressive” enough?

    The simple point is that you had to go and climb Snowdon to stand a chance, but the campaign direction suddenly dumped you at the foot of Everest. I have to admit, there were times that I looked at things that were released or said and I couldn’t help but feel that the Yes camp were “going throught the motions”.

  • @ Rupert Read Posted 8th May 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Bless my soul, there I was thinking it may take a while and then, lo and behold, I find this:

    http://www.liberal-vision.org/2011/05/08/the-humiliation-of-the-yes-campaign/

    It would seem someone has cottoned on. You should also read the link in the article, it would seem that they cottoned on LAST AUGUST.

    http://www.liberal-vision.org/2010/08/22/alternative-vote-referendum-the-yes-side-is-staring-at-defeat/

  • @ Rupert Read Posted 9th May 2011 at 9:50 am

    “Of course, this is technically true; but it should have been contextualised by pointing out that it would be unusual, and FAR less common than under …”

    So it is true then, it may not happen as often as under fptp which, as far as I’m aware, no one has disputed, but it does happen so I would be interested in what you class as “unusual” (e.g. % of seats) and the evidence base for your conclusion.

    It also shows the Yes campaigns statement that “…Never again will we have more people voting against their MP than actually voted for him when he was elected..”
    Was in fact untrue.

  • I don’t remember party policy being that elective members of a reformed second chamber should have a 15 year term of office and no re-election. Can anyone let me know which policy paper it is in?

    I thought I was an STV purest for a second chamber, however maybe the suggestion of Kevin Colwill would be OK, “An open party list in a multi-member constituency- one vote, one X, no top up, no voodoo voting.” Or maybe Old Codger Chris’s suggestion is better, “I would go a stage further. Let’s have a FREE List, with voters allowed as many votes as there are seats in a constituency – and allowed to vote for candidates in different parties (and independents) if they wish. Parties could be allocated seats by the d’Hondt method.”

    Did we change our policy from, “elections by thirds every two years, for a 6 year term, using single transferable vote based on the existing European Parliamentary Constituencies.” If we wish to add a re-election limit then I suggest 8 terms so a young person could make a career of being a member of the second chamber and it is not seen as a second career for the middle aged and old.

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