Bored of electoral reform yet? Oh… Well try to pay attention anyway.
The long-awaited proposals for an elected House of Lords were revealed yesterday. Though open to change, for now the basics are as follows [BBC]:
- 300 members
- 80% elected - 20% appointed but with a provision for a fully elected chamber
- Members to be elected for single 15-year terms under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation
- A third of members to be elected in 2015, a further third in 2020 and 2025
- Number of bishops to be reduced from 26 to 12
I must admit I enjoyed watching these points being discussed in the Commons, where the debate was less partisan than usual and where there were a few recurring points:
- MPs were justifiably concerned with what powers an elected Lords would have, and whether the supremacy of the Commons would be retained. Happily, the DPM made it clear that it even though its legitimacy will be increased, its powers will not and will continue to be limited by the Parliament Acts.
- An elected Lords was in the manifestos of all three main parties (and others) and MPs should remember this, particularly as they like to point emphatically to others’ manifesto commitments when it suits them.
- 15-year, single terms were accused of reducing accountability. However, this needs to be balanced against increasing the independence of these Lords from the party line and so it is best that they should not be thinking of future elections. I wonder, however, whether the ‘right to recall’ corrupt MPs will be extended to elected Lords.
- A couple of interesting questions are, 1) whether there will be many ministers drawn from an elected Lords, and 2) whether Lords’ terms will be extended if the [proposed] 5-year Commons election cycle is disrupted?
- Many Labour MPs thought the proposals did not go far enough, and that a fully elected house and no bishops was needed. They may be right, but so was Clegg in saying that they made no progress in those directions during their 13-year majority rule. And while I feel passionately that the reserved religious places must go, Clegg has won me over to his compromising pragmatism.
The appointment of the possible unelected 20% is also worth noting as this in itself will be a big improvement. The proposal is for them to be chosen by an independent commission based on merit, a system that I know many would rather see used for all Lords. I’m undecided but think both that and elections are preferable to inherited and bought positions.
Now, on to my main point! This largely relates to the proposed ‘staggering’ of elections - a third every 5 years - as is often done in other elections. I had wondered if this could lead to Labour and the Conservatives controlling one House each and so tried to work out what results this staggering would have produced in the past. I based them on vote shares in general elections (with some 4 year terms though that’s not very important) but this includes some important assumptions:
- That people would vote the same way! (With a different voting system, different terms and a different role, clearly they wouldn’t. Previous results and history would also change voting patterns while without tactical voting, the two-party and three-party share would decrease still further.)
- The use of a perfectly proportional system. (Also wrong, and there would necessarily be some kind of threshold for representation)
Those huge caveats aside - this is just for rough illustration! - here’s what a proportional upper house would have looked like, following a proportional house created in 1974 but with one third of those peers replaced in both 1979 and 1983. One table is for a fully elected house, the other for 80%, both showing percentage of seats.
The current poll is YouGov: Lab/Con/LD - 41/39/9 though their results are widely criticised. The Commons colour indicates the most votes or seats in general elections (these have been the same over this time period). LD includes the Lib Dems and the SDP-Liberal alliance.
Some conclusions from these data:
- It is indeed possible for two parties to gain a plurality in one house each. This would quite possibly have happened in 1997 and 2010 where the 3-election averaging of the Lords smooths out Commons landslides. However, this is not the same as a majority or controlling the Lords (and its power to annoy but not block) and is of more symbolic than practical importance (though the election of the Leader of the House might be interesting!)…
- …In a 100% elected House, a Lab/Con government would always (with these voting patterns) have a majority if the LDs supported them. The Con/Lab opposition, however, could say the same.
- With 20% appointed ‘experts’, things may be still more interesting. They would be more numerous than the LDs, yet surely more divided. Getting all these ‘crossbenchers’ onside - a sign of good legislation! - would generally ensure a majority. A Lib-Con or Lib-Lab coalition, however, would often not even have 50% of seats in this 80% elected chamber. I think this is probably a good thing, making even the strictest party whip useless if the ‘experts’ and other parties show zero support for a proposal. I’d imagine and hope that these crossbenchers would also be supplemented by independent elected candidates.
- One thing that’s surprising yet obvious when you think about it, is that a party gains seats not by getting a better result than it did in the last set of elections, but by doing better than 15 years ago. So while Labour’s popularity significantly dropped between 2001 and 2005, their share of peers may have increased in ‘05 as they were still more popular than in 1992.
So, I have been persuaded of the case for change (not just by this flawed model). The civilised debating culture of the Lords can be maintained and indeed the House may become less party-based with the power of the big three parties dispersed - particularly in the 80:20 proposal - and a more pluralistic (and female?) representation created. The potential for abuse inherent in appointments by the executive can be avoided and our excessive number of legislators can also be cut back to a manageable 900 (still far more than most). Perhaps democracy should get a mention too, particularly given that the Single Transferable Vote might be used!
What exciting times! Having said all this, however, I must admit I will be very surprised if the elections of May 7th 2015 include those for the Lords.