The coalition government introduced a Bill to reform the House of Lords and make it more democratic. This bill was called the House of Lords Reform Bill.
This article looks at possible options for a democratically-elected House of Lords, with particular weight given to using an electoral system and electoral boundaries which are intuitive, robust and which create a fairer parliamentary outcome.
The basic point of a democracy is that the politicians, especially those in the legislature, should be chosen by the people. That is the key "kratos" (power) of the "demos". In a parliamentary system, democracy also means that the legislators choose the government, and not the other way around. Although the UK has a proud and long history of democracy, the current parliamentary situation is imperfect.
The most outstanding deficiency is the House of Lords. Its members are not elected by the general public. Instead they are appointed by a variety of mechanisms. Most new members are nominated by the leaders of the main political parties, with most going to the governing party(s). Additionally there are 92 hereditary peers and 26 seats reserved for senior Bishops in the Church of England. Vacancies amongst the hereditaries are filled with by-elections amongst the other hereditaries, which is ironically the only democratic component of the entire appointments procedure.
The effect of these rules is to give effective power to nominate members of the House of Lords principally to the Prime Minister of the day, and secondarily to the Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders. This is not democratic, and compares badly to other democratic countries. It is worth reviewing the democratic strengths and weaknesses of the second chambers of other major democracies:
Sources: The United States Constitution, Wikipedia
The House of Lords (and its Canadian scion) is by far the least democratic second chamber in this group. The case for reform is clear.
The lack of legitimacy of the House of the Lords has been identified for some time. The preamble of the Parliament Act 1911 states "it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation". This delay has now stretched over a century. The lack of progress suggests that there are some important vested interests who benefit from the current arrangements and are reluctant to see change. Most of these interests could be described a political rent-seekers in that they enjoy, similarly to economic rent-seekers, more political power than they have earned.
Here is brief sketch of the list of vested interests against reform. These comments apply generally to holders of the offices mentioned, and are not specific accusations against their current incumbents.
Whatever any Prime Minister's personal belief in democracy, the holder of that office enjoys substantial political benefits from the current arrangements. The three key ones are:
It is worth pausing to note that all three of these interests run counter to those of the British people. The people should have the power to choose the members of the legislature, not the government. The people's legislature should be strong, not weak, and governments have the right to govern but not to legislate. And, crucially, the members of the legislature should perform their feats of service to their electors not to the Prime Minister.
These are the very strong interests which give the Prime Minister and government of the day a strong desire to see the status quo maintained. A reforming Prime Minister needs a high degree of statesmanship and self-denial.
Although there have been many notable examples of reform-minded MPs, there are many others who pursue their own vested interests in the current House of Lords. These are:
Also, many MPs are part of the government, or hope to be so, and would share the Prime Minister's interest in blocking reform.
With so much advantage accruing to the Prime Minister from the current arrangements, it might be expected that the opposition leader would have a strong interest in reform. But things are not so simple, and the Leader of the Opposition has his/her own reasons for enjoying the situation:
However, there are interests in the other direction. The Leader of the Opposition could benefit from a stronger second chamber, because it would make it less automatic that the government's legislation would pass through relatively unamended. Also, public support of the principle of reform can be politically useful in making the Opposition appear democratic and on the side of the electors.
Overall this gives the Leader of the Opposition an interest in appearing to favour reform, but no strong interest in helping it to happen.
The current members of the House of Lords obviously have a great vested interest in the current system. The vast majority would lose their seats were the Lords democratically elected. Even the most democratic and honourable individual on the red benches finds it hard to resist engaging in intellectual gymnastics to justify the mediaeval system of appointments which placed them there.
In the spirit of Bagehot, the best cure for these arguments is to listen to them. Here are some examples from the recent debate in the Lords on the subject of reform.
...the virtue of our system, as I have always seen it, is that the undisputed primacy of the House of Commons, if I can put it bluntly, takes care of democracy.
Lord (Peter) Hennessy of Nympsfield, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
...the benefits of radical reform as proposed cannot justify [the risks]. ...we are pleased that the Joint Committee was persuaded that in a reformed House there should remain a place for the Lords spiritual [Bishops].
Bishop of Leicester, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
My Lords, I am a 1660s placeman and I am very proud to have been in this House to represent my family for such a long time. ... I do not see elections to this House as a necessary route to legitimacy or democracy. Indeed, I am among those reformists who value and cherish the traditions of this House and the practices of our revising Chamber as they are now.
The Earl of Sandwich, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
I am against elections, at least of the kind currently proposed. I will not rehearse the arguments. Your Lordships have heard them far too often to make that necessary.
Lord Low of Dalston, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
I am not in favour of an elected House, unlike the majority on the committee. An elected House would undoubtedly want more powers than the current House. I agree with paragraph 4 of the report's conclusion that this would not benefit Parliament's overall role. There would be more scope for gridlock in legislation.
Lord Northbrook, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
My Lords, our country is facing a perilous economic situation, which is likely to last for some time to come. For any Government, coalition or otherwise, to attempt to drive through major disruptive and potentially disastrous changes to our long-established and proven parliamentary structure in this situation strikes me as utter folly.
Lord (Michael Lord) Framlingham, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
You do not have to be elected to be accountable.
Viscount Astor, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
The case for an elected House and hence for the Bill is based on contested concepts and philosophies.
Lord Norton of Louth, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
I have been in this House since 1997, and when I first came in I believed that the House should be reformed. Much as I have come to love the place and the people in it, and to respect the very significant contribution that it makes to society through its work, knowledge and expertise, I have over the years felt the embrace of the House on me to shift my position.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
There are certain advantages of the indirect election system as against universal suffrage. First, there is a good chance that if the electorate were existing MPs, MEPs and Members of the devolved Parliaments-a confined electorate-we would retain some of the expertise that appointments brings which we are afraid of losing.
Lord (David) Steel of Aikwood, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
The argument is very simple and is put forward by the Liberal Democrats and others: namely, if we have an elected House, Britain will be more democratic. I do not believe that that will be the case. We are already 100 per cent democratic and that democratic legitimacy rests in the House of Commons. If both Chambers were elected, that legitimacy would inevitably be divided and, I believe, would be less effective.
Lord (Terence) Higgins, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
My Lords, like many of your Lordships, I find it amazing that the other place could even consider making this House an elected or indeed partially elected Chamber. This would only increase this House's legitimacy to the point where it would have the right to challenge the power of the other place.
Lord (Greville) Howard of Rising, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
I am proud that in the House of Lords we have a sense of independence and objectivity that the other place simply could not match. This credible and incredible wisdom is unique in the world. Our method of debating through the self-regulating system is also unique. We do not need to be like or copy anyone else. After all, Westminster is the mother of all Parliaments.
Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
Tonight I speak against my instincts. My instincts are for democratic elections to be held wherever they are practical and worth while. ... I am content for the Commons to be the democratic Chamber and for us, as the inferior House, to retain the virtues of complementariness.
Lord (Andrew) Phillips of Sudbury, House of Lords, 30 April 2012
Under the British Constitution, changes to the Constitution are made by parliament. This in effect gives the then Prime Minister and members of the House of Commons a veto on reform. They are naturally resistant to approve a reform which reduces their power and status. When the Lords are asked to approve reform, the metaphor of "turkeys voting for Christmas" is sometimes invoked, but this applies also to the MPs, the Prime Minister and government business managers. If Lords reform were not against the vested interest of MPs it might have been completed decades ago. This is perhaps the main reason why reform is difficult.
Interestingly the situation in the United States had some similarities. Under the original 1787 constitution, the United States Senate was not directly elected. During the nineteenth century, pressure for reform mounted from the states and the state legislatures and was opposed by Congress. Congress eventually passed a constitutional amendment for an elected Senate in 1912, which was quickly ratified by the states in the following year.
The fundamental paradox is that the politicians are participants in the public electoral process, but also set the rules of it. In the language of economics, there is an "agency problem". The elected politicians are the agents of the people, and are entrusted to use their powers in the interests of the people. But on the subject of electoral reform, the interests of the agents and the interests of their principals can diverge. In the language of the Roman satirist Juvenal (sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes), who governs the choosing of the governors?
Various schemes can be put forward to address this problem, possibly focused around some sort of constitutional convention. However this would be a significant constitutional departure for the United Kingdom which might cause theoretical difficulties. On the practical side, it might also fail to be effective, because of the problems with its composition. If politicians are dominant, then it fails to solve the agency problem. If politicians are excluded, it might struggle to appear legitimate.
Failing a workable constitutional convention, the traditional way forward is to build popular support for reform to such an extent that politicians are unable to resist it. Or else hope for a reforming Prime Minister who has an eye on history rather than his or her party's short-term interests.
The supporters of Lords reform, or at least those in whose interests it is, exist as well.
The Liberal Democrats have been one of the major political voices calling for reform, and the recent Reform Bill has been an initiative from the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition government. Aside from a traditional liberal focus on electoral reform issues, the Liberal Democrats also have a strong interest in reform. An elected second chamber would most likely have a different electoral system to the House of Commons, or else it would just be a clone. That other system might have a proportional element, which would then give the Liberal Democrats a stronger presence in the second chamber than they have in the Commons. In the hopes of some Liberal Democrats, and in the fears of some in other parties, they could permanently hold the balance of power in the new second chamber.
Accordingly we should expect that the Liberal Democrats will be strong and genuine advocates for an elected House of Lords, particularly pressing for a proportional system.
The British People collectively have an interest in a reformed House of Lords. If it is elected, it should act in line with the wishes of its electors. If it is different from the House of Commons, it will provide a useful double-check that new legislation is indeed favoured by the population at large.
These constitutional gains, although real, are relatively diffuse. The amount of gain that any individual enjoys from reform would be much less than, say, the loss felt by a current member of the House of Lords, or indeed the loss felt by a typical Prime Minister. So the public might naturally feel the issue is not a great priority to them.
A poll the pressure group for Unlock Democracy (YouGov 18-20 April 2012) showed 69% of people supporting reform of the House of Lords, with only 5% supporting the fully-appointed status quo. A neutral poll (YouGov 25-26 June 2012) showed 76% supporting reform and 11% against. But crucially, it showed that only 18% felt that reform should be a priority, whilst 52% approved of the concept but did not feel it should be a priority.
Another Angus Reid poll (9-10 August 2012) also shows 67% of the public supporting the proposal that "80% of the members of the House of Lords are elected".
Minor parties would also be expected to benefit from a House of Lords, but only if there were a proportional electoral system. That would give them significantly more influence than they are able to obtain in the House of Commons.
It appears that the smaller parties may be putting ideology above their own interests. Ideologically speaking, House of Lords reform is often seen as a "progressive" issue, although there is no particular reason for this. So leftish parties, such as the Greens, give mild support, and parties of the right have a more (small-C) conservative attitude.
The proposals in the current House of Lords Reform Bill make the House of Lords mostly elected. However, in many respects the Bill seems to be designed to preserve the status quo and avoid loss of the political "rents" which were laid out in section two. The main proposals in the Bill are detailed below.
The new House of Lords would have around 470 members. These would consist of 360 elected members, 90 appointed members, 12 Bishops, and up to 8 government ministers appointed by the Prime Minister.
This makes about 75% of the members elected, which is a welcome improvement for supporters of democracy. However, about a quarter of members are still appointed, which is less satisfactory.
Persons are barred from membership of the House of Lords if: they have been members before; or they have been sentenced to prison for more then twelve months; or they are bankrupt. These restrictions are all undemocratic. It is for voters alone to determine whether someone is suitable to represent them. Under this rule, Natan Sharansky, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi would all have been barred from election.
The proposed election system is a proportional method using a party list. This has both advantages and disadvantages.
The positive side is the introduction of a proportional system for the upper house. This has two distinct benefits. Firstly there is a need to have the House of Lords be different from the Commons. If it were identical, then there would be little difference in the outcome of votes, and thus not much point in its existence. This point is developed further in sections 4.4 and 5.1 below. Secondly it gives more weight to the smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and others. These parties do not gain many seats under the first-past-the-post system used for the Commons, and a more proportional approach in the Lords helps to balance that. Though care needs to be taken that this effect is not disproportionate, and there are other ways of achieving it.
The negative part of the proposal is the Party List. This means that each party puts forward a "list" of candidates in a specific order. The party controls the names which go on the list and the order in which they are presented. A voter can vote generally for a party, or for a specific candidate on the list. Those "general" votes are allocated to candidates on the party's list in the given order. Candidates are elected when they get enough votes (see below for more details).
Although voters can choose a specific candidate, many voters will not do so (and parties will encourage voters to vote for the party generally, to avoid wasting any votes). So in practice, the ordering of the party list will be the key determinant of which candidates are elected. The overall level of support for the party will also be important, but that varies within predictable limits, so the outcome of the election will be relatively mechanical. This effectively reduces the ability of electors to choose their representatives, and instead transfers that power to party managers. Party List systems have been strongly criticised for this weakening of democratic choice.
Even though there is an election, a large component of the power to choose the members still lies with the party leadership, rather than electors. The choice of electoral system is crucial in reducing the voters' say in choosing their members.
Interestingly, Northern Ireland would continue to use its single transferable vote (STV) system which is proportional and which also gives voters the choice of whom to elect. STV is often seen as a more democratic system because voters have the power to vote for popular candidates, and indeed have the power to vote across party lines. It is also more favourable to independent candidates.
The proposal is to have very large constituencies, known as electoral districts. There would only be 12 districts, so each one has an average size of about 55 Commons' constituencies and an electorate of 3.8 million people. Each district would have about 30 members, so each elector would have around 30 people claiming to represent him or her. Every five years, one-third of the members are elected for a 15 year term. At the end of the 15 year term, the member is barred from standing again.
These proposals seem designed to weaken the legitimacy of the elected members. The electoral districts are very large, and it will be difficult for individual candidates to create a relationship with their electors. It will not be very necessary either, because of both the party list electoral system which makes the election a rather foregone conclusion, and the fact that there is no possibility of re-election.
The fifteen year term is very long, compared with the typical six-year terms for other democracies' upper houses. It does not seem a desirable or democratic feature.
In 1911, the Liberal minority government led by HH Asquith put forward a bill to reduce the power of the House of Lords. The Parliament Act 1911, as it became, removed the power of the Lords to veto money bills at all, and to only be able to delay other bills. The argument at the time was that because the Lords was not elected, it could not have equal powers with the Commons. Indeed, the preamble to the Parliament Act states:
Whereas it is expedient that provision should be made for regulating the relations between the two Houses of Parliament:
And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation:
And whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by Parliament in a measure effecting such substitution for limiting and defining the powers of the new Second Chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this Act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords:
In other words, the restrictions in the powers of the Lords was designed as a temporary measure until the Lords could be popularly elected. This electoral change could not "be immediately brought into operation", but would need "hereafter to be made by Parliament". The clear intent of this text is that the relative powers of the two Houses of Parliament could be rebalanced once the House of Lords is elected.
There are good democratic reasons to increase the powers of an elected House of Lords. It has been observed that it is too easy for a government to get legislation passed in Britain, and this results in too much legislation, not all of which is high-quality. Ideally, legislation should reflect the settled will of a majority of the electorate, and not follow automatically from a ministerial press release. The government has a right to govern, but it does not have a right to legislate. There is too much legislation and not enough parliamentary conflict. We are at the wrong point on the spectrum between elected dictatorship and gridlock. Increasing the powers of the House of Lords would address this democratic problem.
But the current reform bill baldly states (in Part 1):
2 Continued application of the Parliament Acts
(1) The Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 continue to apply after the beginning of the first electoral period, despite the changes to the House of Lords made by this Act.
(2) The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 is repealed.
This continues the primacy of the House of Commons, whilst removing the reason for it. It also cancels the marker which parliament laid down a century ago to remind us not to do this. The primacy of the House of Commons is neither a constitutional axiom nor a public good. There is nothing democratic about this provision, which is solely in the interests of members of the House of Commons.
Many of these proposals do not make much sense from a democratic point of view. But the reasons for them can be clearly seen in the light of the political rents described in section two. All the undemocratic proposals in the current bill serve the purpose of perpetuating one or other of the existing political rents.
Let us see how many of the political rents described in section two still survive even with an elected House of Lords.
Unfortunately, even with a watered-down Bill containing significant democratic weaknesses, reform was rejected by members of the House of Commons. Over a hundred Conservative MPs failed to support the Bill at its second reading in July 2012, and a technical timetable motion was withdrawn. The government acknowledged the failure of the Bill on 3 September 2012.
Whilst the details of the House of Lords Reform Bill are unsatisfactory, the overall direction is a welcome move towards democracy. The detail of the proposals can be improved to make it more democratic. Here are some positive suggestions for a more democratic parliament.
These are all democratic suggestions which return to voters the power to choose their representatives in Parliament.
There are advantages in having the Lords' constituencies be different from the Commons'. Principally this is to avoid the elected Lords being a simple clone of the Commons. An "identikit" chamber would do nothing to increase the amount of parliamentary scrutiny of new legislation. A common way of achieving this in other developed democracies is to give a higher weight to rural and remote areas, which also contributes to national cohesion.
For this reason, a straightforward definition of Lords' constituencies is:
This would result in 80 constituencies, and thus give 320 members of the elected House of Lords. Each constituency would be the size of about eight Commons' seats with an average electorate of 570,000. This is large but manageable. Usefully, the historic and time-honoured county boundaries provide both a guard against future gerrymandering, and also a clear and simple link between voters and their Parliamentary Lords. Almost all people know which county they live in, and so would have a good chance of learning who their Parliamentary Lords are.
The constituency names would also be very clear and immediately well-understood throughout the country. This would help gain understanding and acceptance for the new members and the arrangements in general.
|County Constituency||Electorate||District, Borough or Unitary Council|
|1. East Scotland|
|Central Scotland||223,064||Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, Stirling|
|Edinburgh County||612,675||East Lothian, Edinburgh, Midlothian, West Lothian|
|Grampian||398,594||Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray|
|Orkney and Shetland||33,085||Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands|
|Tayside||263,488||Angus, Dundee, Perth and Kinross|
|Western Isles||22,266||Na h-Eileanan an lar|
|2. West Scotland|
|Argyll and Bute||67,165||Argyll and Bute|
|Ayrshire and Lanark||518,471||East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire|
|Dumfries and Galloway||141,208||Dumfries and Galloway|
|Glasgow County||1,060,657||East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire|
|3. Northern Ireland|
|Antrim||505,410||Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Larne, Lisburn, Moyle, Newtownabbey|
|Down||192,021||Ards, Banbridge, Castlereagh, Down, Newry and Mourne, North Down|
|Londonderry||129,063||Coleraine, Derry, Limavady, Magherafelt|
|Tyrone||125,742||Cookstown, Dungannon and South Tyrone, Omagh, Strabane|
|Cumbria||389,348||Allerdale, Barrow-in-furness, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden, South Lakeland|
|Newcastle County||815,542||Gateshead, Newcastle Upon Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland|
|Teeside||415,775||Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-tees|
|Lancashire||1,114,767||Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Burnley, Chorley, Fylde, Hyndburn, Lancaster, Pendle, Preston, Ribble Valley, Rossendale, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre|
|Merseyside||1,012,561||Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral|
|6. Greater Manchester|
|Central Manchester||679,126||Manchester, Salford, Trafford|
|Eastern Manchester||704,962||Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside|
|Western Manchester||574,317||Bolton, Bury, Wigan|
|North Yorkshire||606,464||Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough, Selby, York|
|West Yorkshire||1,551,413||Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield|
|Humber County||681,109||East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston Upon Hull, North East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire|
|Lincolnshire||533,656||Boston, East Lindsey, Lincoln, North Kesteven, South Holland, South Kesteven, West Lindsey|
|South Yorkshire||972,509||Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield|
|9. West Midlands|
|Black Country||813,985||Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton|
|Coventry and Solihull||381,247||Coventry, Solihull|
|10. East Midlands|
|Derbyshire||770,634||Amber Valley, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derby, Derbyshire Dales, Erewash, High Peak, North East Derbyshire, South Derbyshire|
|Leicestershire||747,292||Blaby, Charnwood, Harborough, Hinckley and Bosworth, Leicester, Melton, North West Leicestershire, Oadby and Wigston, Rutland|
|Nottinghamshire||781,793||Ashfield, Bassetlaw, Broxtowe, Gedling, Mansfield, Newark and Sherwood, Nottingham, Rushcliffe|
|Warwickshire||408,572||North Warwickshire, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Rugby, Stratford On Avon, Warwick|
|Cheshire||775,064||Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Halton, Warrington|
|Hereford and Worcestershire||574,579||Bromsgrove, Herefordshire, Malvern Hills, Redditch, Worcester, Wychavon, Wyre Forest|
|Shropshire||351,600||Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin|
|Staffordshire||838,200||Cannock Chase, East Staffordshire, Lichfield, Newcastle-under-lyme, South Staffordshire, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, Stoke-on-trent, Tamworth|
|Clwyd||377,308||Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrexham|
|Dyfed||282,003||Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire|
|Gwent||409,892||Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport, Torfaen|
|Gwynedd||136,627||Gwynedd, Isle of Anglesey|
|Mid Glamorgan||329,371||Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf|
|South Glamorgan||333,468||Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan|
|West Glamorgan||290,828||Neath Port Talbot, Swansea|
|13. East Anglia|
|Bedfordshire||424,157||Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Luton|
|Cambridgeshire||555,098||Cambridge, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Huntingdonshire, Peterborough, South Cambridgeshire|
|Norfolk||648,161||Breckland, Broadland, Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, North Norfolk, Norwich, South Norfolk|
|Northamptonshire||508,635||Corby, Daventry, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, Northampton, South Northamptonshire, Wellingborough|
|Suffolk||541,076||Babergh, Forest Heath, Ipswich, Mid Suffolk, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal, Waveney|
|Buckinghamshire||549,075||Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, Milton Keynes, South Bucks, Wycombe|
|Essex||1,281,048||Basildon, Braintree, Brentwood, Castle Point, Chelmsford, Colchester, Epping Forest, Harlow, Maldon, Rochford, Southend-on-sea, Tendring, Thurrock, Uttlesford|
|Hertfordshire||811,816||Broxbourne, Dacorum, East Hertfordshire, Hertsmere, North Hertfordshire, St Albans, Stevenage, Three Rivers, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield|
|Bristol County||792,486||Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire|
|Gloucestershire||458,427||Cheltenham, Cotswold, Forest of Dean, Gloucester, Stroud, Tewkesbury|
|Oxfordshire||489,557||Cherwell, Oxford, South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse, West Oxfordshire|
|16 & 17. Greater London|
|London Central||943,066||Camden, City of London, City of Westminster, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Tower Hamlets|
|London North East||1,165,032||Barking and Dagenham, Enfield, Haringey, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest|
|London North West||1,100,603||Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow|
|London South East||1,131,665||Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark|
|London South West||936,542||Kingston Upon Thames, Lambeth, Merton, Richmond Upon Thames, Sutton, Wandsworth|
|18. South West|
|Cornwall||418,741||Cornwall, Isles of Scilly|
|Devon||871,148||East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, North Devon, Plymouth, South Hams, Teignbridge, Torbay, Torridge, West Devon|
|Dorset||565,465||Bournemouth, Christchurch, East Dorset, North Dorset, Poole, Purbeck, West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland|
|Somerset||402,391||Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, Taunton Deane, West Somerset|
|Berkshire||597,896||Bracknell Forest, Reading, Slough, West Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Wokingham|
|Hampshire||1,412,555||Basingstoke and Deane, East Hampshire, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Hart, Havant, Isle of Wight, New Forest, Portsmouth, Rushmoor, Southampton, Test Valley, Winchester|
|Surrey||824,148||Elmbridge, Epsom and Ewell, Guildford, Mole Valley, Reigate and Banstead, Runnymede, Spelthorne, Surrey Heath, Tandridge, Waverley, Woking|
|20. South East|
|East Sussex||592,022||Brighton and Hove, Eastbourne, Hastings, Lewes, Rother, Wealden|
|Kent||1,239,951||Ashford, Canterbury, Dartford, Dover, Gravesham, Maidstone, Medway, Sevenoaks, Shepway, Swale, Thanet, Tonbridge and Malling, Tunbridge Wells|
|West Sussex||606,582||Adur, Arun, Chichester, Crawley, Horsham, Mid Sussex, Worthing|
The number of seats for each area of the country is shown in the table below. There is deliberate over-representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as for rural areas such as the north of England.
This proposal could be criticised for producing constituencies of very different sizes. Some Counties are larger than others, and some are very small. The two largest are West Yorkshire (1,551,413) and Hampshire (1,412,555). The two smallest are Orkney and Shetland (33,085), and the Western Isles (22,266). So the ratio of the largest electorate to the smallest is 70. We can compare this with the relative sizes of the States of the United States, which are used as constituencies for the US Senate. The largest state, California, has about 66 times the population of the smallest state, Wyoming. Generally the UK Counties are actually more equally-sized than US States, apart from the Scottish islands. Indeed the rural over-representation in the US Senate costs the average American about 36% of the power of their vote, but the equivalent figure for UK Counties is only 24%.
The over-representation of the rural areas has the political effect of giving an advantage to the Liberal Democrats over the Labour party. (See section six below for more details.) This can be justified on grounds of balance, both because Labour enjoys various advantages in Commons' elections (see Analysis of Con/Lab Gap), and because the Commons arithmetic makes it hard for the third-party to hold power in proportion to its electoral support. That is, if a party consistently gets 20% support, it's average share of power will be less than 20%.
The choice of proposing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) method as the electoral system has been carefully considered. The main reasons for this choice are as follows:
The main problem with some proportional systems, particularly multi-member systems like Party Lists and STV, is that the new chamber can be almost perpetually hung. This could create either permanent gridlock, or hand a considerable amount of power to smaller parties. Evidence of the extent of this problem can be seen in the next section below. Other single-member systems, such as the Alternative Vote (AV), perform similarly to FPTP and can also be considered as a viable method for the House of Lords.
The main argument in favour of proportional systems is that it gives a degree of power to smaller parties. These proposals achieve this by the alternative route of having mixed-size seats (which benefits the smaller nations of the UK), and by the staggered timing of the elections. This increases the chance of a hung chamber, which gives power to smaller parties, but still maintains the ability of major parties to have a majority.
Although theoretical and principled considerations play a strong role in design of the new House of Lords, there is an important place for practical considerations. Any election system which is proposed needs to be tested against actual electoral data to see what the composition of the new chamber would be. A system will only be accepted by the voting public if it is seen to both relatively fair and also to reflect the will of the public. A good system needs to avoid both the problem of perpetual gridlock (a feature of multi-member seats) and the danger of all the power simply going to the largest party in the Commons (the current system).
To measure the effectiveness of various systems, we have conducted an historical analysis using election data over the last thirty years. Under any proposed election system, and at each election date, we estimate the numbers of members elected to the reformed House of Lords. The historical series of such "postdicted" (as opposed to "predicted") results can be compared against the historical composition of the House of Commons. A system will be successful if it is similar but different to the Commons' composition; if it allows a major party to have a majority; if it allows for a hung chamber; and if it remains possible, but more difficult, for a Commons-led government to pass legislation.
We consider four possible systems: the 2012 Bill's proposals, County-based multi-member STV, County-based FPTP, and County-based AV. The full details of these proposals are shown in the table below:
|System Name||Seat definitions||Members|
|Total Size||Election frequency||Election method|
|2012 Bill||Twelve large regions|
as defined in the Bill
|One third of members every five years||Party List|
|County STV||80 Historic counties||4||320||All members at each general election||STV|
|County FPTP||80 Historic counties||4||320||One quarter of members every year||FPTP|
|County AV||80 Historic counties||4||320||One quarter of members every year||AV|
For each general election since 1983, we calculate the number of seats won by each party in a House of Lords elected according to the method proposed by the 2012 House of Lords Reform Bill. The following assumptions were made: ignore the unelected members; and assume the same public support for Lords as the Commons.
The table below shows the general election results since 1983, alongside the predicted Lords results in terms of numbers of seats won for each party. A party needs 181 seats in the Lords to have a majority.
|Election Date||CON %||LAB %||LIB %||Commons Result||CON||LAB||LIB||NAT||OTH||Lords Result|
|9 Jun 1983||42.4||27.6||25.4||Con majority||162||99||87||3||9||Lib coalition choice|
|11 Jun 1987||43.3||31.5||23.1||Con majority||160||103||85||3||9||Lib coalition choice|
|9 Apr 1992||42.8||35.2||18.3||Con majority||159||113||75||4||9||Lib coalition choice|
|1 May 1997||30.7||43.2||16.8||Lab majority||143||135||64||5||13||Lib coalition choice|
|7 Jun 2001||31.7||40.7||18.3||Lab majority||129||148||59||7||17||Lib coalition choice|
|5 May 2005||32.3||35.2||22.1||Lab majority||114||149||65||8||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|5 May 2010||36.1||29.0||23.0||Con/Lib coalition||120||130||74||8||28||Lib coalition choice|
It is notable that the Lords is always hung under these proposals. Indeed, it is so finely balanced that the Liberal Democrats can almost always choose who runs the Lords. This is not notably democratic, and is a large drawback with this proposal.
We can now look at an improved version of the proposed Bill. We have changed the seats away from the large regions and use instead the eighty historic counties of the UK. The election method is still a multi-member proportional system, but is now the more democratic single-transferable vote (STV), rather than the undemocratic party list system. All the members are elected at each general election. The results are shown in the table below. A party needs 161 seats in the Lords to have a majority.
|Election Date||CON %||LAB %||LIB %||Commons Result||CON||LAB||LIB||NAT||OTH||Lords Result|
|9 Jun 1983||42.4||27.6||25.4||Con majority||125||71||88||11||25||Con/Lib coalition|
|11 Jun 1987||43.3||31.5||23.1||Con majority||125||83||80||8||24||Lib coalition choice|
|9 Apr 1992||42.8||35.2||18.3||Con majority||119||100||62||15||24||Lib coalition choice|
|1 May 1997||30.7||43.2||16.8||Lab majority||86||131||61||17||25||Lab/Lib coalition|
|7 Jun 2001||31.7||40.7||18.3||Lab majority||90||122||65||19||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|5 May 2005||32.3||35.2||22.1||Lab majority||89||109||81||13||28||Lib coalition choice|
|5 May 2010||36.1||29.0||23.0||Con/Lib coalition||101||87||83||18||31||Lib coalition choice|
Again, there was no time in last thirty years when any party would have a majority in the Lords. It is hard to think that such perpetual gridlock would conform to the wishes of the British voters, and so this proposal should also be rejected.
Now we change the voting system back to the familiar system used most widely in the UK. The seats are kept as the eighty historic counties, each electing one member (for a four-year term) every year. There are 320 members of the new Lords, and a party needs 161 seats to have a majority. Because there is a Lords election every year, the composition of the new Lords is shown for every year. We have assumed that popular voting shares evolve linearly between general elections.
|CON %||LAB %||LIB %||Commons Result||CON||LAB||LIB||NAT||OTH||Lords Result|
|1983||43.5||34.6||16.6||Con majority||200||76||12||8||24||Con majority 80|
|1984||43.2||32.4||19.4||Con majority||203||71||14||8||24||Con majority 86|
|1985||42.8||30.1||22.3||Con majority||203||69||16||8||24||Con majority 86|
|1986||42.4||27.8||25.1||Con majority||203||69||16||8||24||Con majority 86|
|1987||42.6||28.5||24.9||Con majority||198||72||18||8||24||Con majority 76|
|1988||42.8||29.4||24.3||Con majority||192||77||19||8||24||Con majority 64|
|1989||43.1||30.4||23.7||Con majority||187||81||20||8||24||Con majority 54|
|1990||43.3||31.4||23.2||Con majority||182||85||21||8||24||Con majority 44|
|1991||43.2||32.2||22.2||Con majority||178||91||19||8||24||Con majority 36|
|1992||43.1||32.9||21.2||Con majority||173||96||19||8||24||Con majority 26|
|1993||43.0||33.7||20.2||Con majority||164||104||20||8||24||Con majority 8|
|1994||42.9||34.5||19.2||Con majority||152||115||21||8||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|1995||42.7||35.3||18.3||Con majority||139||125||24||8||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|1996||40.3||36.9||18.0||Con majority||123||139||26||8||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|1997||37.9||38.5||17.7||Lab majority||105||156||26||9||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|1998||35.5||40.0||17.4||Lab majority||90||169||27||10||24||Lab majority 18|
|1999||33.1||41.6||17.1||Lab majority||78||180||27||11||24||Lab majority 40|
|2000||30.7||43.2||16.8||Lab majority||74||183||27||12||24||Lab majority 46|
|2001||30.9||42.6||17.2||Lab majority||79||179||27||11||24||Lab majority 38|
|2002||31.2||42.0||17.5||Lab majority||84||175||27||10||24||Lab majority 30|
|2003||31.4||41.4||17.9||Lab majority||90||169||28||9||24||Lab majority 18|
|2004||31.7||40.8||18.3||Lab majority||97||161||30||8||24||Lab majority 2|
|2005||31.8||39.4||19.2||Lab majority||103||153||31||9||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2006||32.0||38.0||20.1||Lab majority||110||145||31||10||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2007||32.1||36.6||21.1||Lab majority||118||137||30||11||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2010||33.8||32.7||22.5||Con/Lib coalition||136||116||30||14||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|2011||34.6||31.5||22.6||Con/Lib coalition||136||119||27||14||24||Con/Lib coalition|
These results show a clear improvement on the multi-member systems. Major parties can often have a majority in the new House of Lords, but it is not guaranteed. The staggered elections mean that a governing party loses momentum earlier in the Lords. For example, John Major would have lost his majority in the Lords in 1994 (following Black Wednesday in October 1992), and Tony Blair's 2005 victory in the Commons would not have been enough to give a majority in the Lords. In both these cases, political compromises would have to have been made due to the changing mandate from the voters.
This proposal is very similar to the FPTP method of 6.3 above, and retains the features of historical county seats plus annual elections of one quarter of the 320 members. The only change is that each member is elected using the Alternative Vote system rather than first-past-the-post. This gives some advantage to the Liberal Democrats.
|CON %||LAB %||LIB %||Commons Result||CON||LAB||LIB||NAT||OTH||Lords Result|
|1983||43.5||34.6||16.6||Con majority||190||74||20||12||24||Con majority 60|
|1984||43.2||32.4||19.4||Con majority||191||69||24||12||24||Con majority 62|
|1985||42.8||30.1||22.3||Con majority||191||66||27||12||24||Con majority 62|
|1986||42.4||27.8||25.1||Con majority||192||66||26||12||24||Con majority 64|
|1987||42.6||28.5||24.9||Con majority||190||70||25||11||24||Con majority 60|
|1988||42.8||29.4||24.3||Con majority||188||73||25||10||24||Con majority 56|
|1989||43.1||30.4||23.7||Con majority||184||77||26||9||24||Con majority 48|
|1990||43.3||31.4||23.2||Con majority||180||80||28||8||24||Con majority 40|
|1991||43.2||32.2||22.2||Con majority||177||83||28||8||24||Con majority 34|
|1992||43.1||32.9||21.2||Con majority||169||91||28||8||24||Con majority 18|
|1993||43.0||33.7||20.2||Con majority||159||100||28||9||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|1994||42.9||34.5||19.2||Con majority||146||112||28||10||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|1996||40.3||36.9||18.0||Con majority||118||136||30||12||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|1997||37.9||38.5||17.7||Lab majority||100||152||32||12||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|1998||35.5||40.0||17.4||Lab majority||85||165||34||12||24||Lab majority 10|
|1999||33.1||41.6||17.1||Lab majority||75||174||35||12||24||Lab majority 28|
|2000||30.7||43.2||16.8||Lab majority||70||178||37||11||24||Lab majority 36|
|2001||30.9||42.6||17.2||Lab majority||75||172||39||10||24||Lab majority 24|
|2002||31.2||42.0||17.5||Lab majority||79||166||42||9||24||Lab majority 12|
|2003||31.4||41.4||17.9||Lab majority||84||158||46||8||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2004||31.7||40.8||18.3||Lab majority||86||150||52||8||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2005||31.8||39.4||19.2||Lab majority||90||142||55||9||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2006||32.0||38.0||20.1||Lab majority||96||133||57||10||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2007||32.1||36.6||21.1||Lab majority||102||124||58||12||24||Lab/Lib coalition|
|2008||32.3||35.2||22.1||Lab majority||111||115||56||14||24||Lib coalition choice|
|2009||33.1||34.0||22.3||Lab majority||118||107||56||15||24||Lib coalition choice|
|2010||33.8||32.7||22.5||Con/Lib coalition||126||101||54||15||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|2011||34.6||31.5||22.6||Con/Lib coalition||126||107||49||14||24||Con/Lib coalition|
|2012||35.3||30.3||22.8||Con/Lib coalition||121||121||41||13||24||Lib coalition choice|
The results are also quite similar to FPTP. There are clear periods where a major party has a Lords majority. But there are also increased periods when the Lords is balanced/hung. In fact, it would have had no overall majority for all of the last ten years. This makes the AV system look viable, but probably not preferred as the best democratic outcome. Though it will probably be the favoured choice of the Liberal Democrats.
The House of Lords needs reform. It has been waiting for over a hundred years since the first Parliament Act. The 2012 Bill for reform was a welcome attempt to move the debate forward, but it was not wholly satisfactory. This article seeks to propose a workable election system for the House of Lords, which is deliberately democratic and sets out to reduce the unearned political rents which are withheld from the British voters by their politicians. But the proposals also aim to keep the ability of a strong government to pass legislation. The powers of smaller parties will be increased, but not excessively. Regional and national cohesion will be increased by giving more influence to rural areas, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The seats have a traditional and stable definition to aid voter recognition and acceptance of them.
The proposals are summarised as:
These are all democratic suggestions which return to voters the power to choose their representatives in Parliament.