Lords Reform - Analysis of Voting Systems

This page first posted 1 January 2013, updated 1 November 2015

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.

1. Introduction : The current state of British Parliamentary Democracy

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.

2. Political rent-seekers : the vested interests against reform

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.

2.1 The Prime Minister of the Day

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.

2.2 Members of the House of Commons

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.

2.3 The Leader of the Opposition

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.

2.4 Members of the House of Lords

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
More Quotes from the Lords
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

2.5 Why Reform is Difficult

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.

3. Supporters of Lords Reform

The supporters of Lords reform, or at least those in whose interests it is, exist as well.

3.1 The Liberal Democrats

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.

3.2 The British People

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".

3.3 Other parties

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.

4. Reform Bill Analysis

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.

4.1 Composition

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.

4.2 Election system

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.

4.3 Constituencies and Election Frequency

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.

4.4 Primacy of the House of Commons

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.

4.5 Political Rents survive

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.

5. Positive Proposals for Reform

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.

5.1 Lords Constituencies Defintion

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 Details

County ConstituencyElectorateDistrict, Borough or Unitary Council
1. East Scotland
Borders73,826Scottish Borders
Central Scotland223,064Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, Stirling
Edinburgh County612,675East Lothian, Edinburgh, Midlothian, West Lothian
Grampian398,594Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray
Orkney and Shetland33,085Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands
Tayside263,488Angus, Dundee, Perth and Kinross
Western Isles22,266Na h-Eileanan an lar
2. West Scotland
Argyll and Bute67,165Argyll and Bute
Ayrshire and Lanark518,471East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire
Dumfries and Galloway141,208Dumfries and Galloway
Glasgow County1,060,657East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire
3. Northern Ireland
Antrim505,410Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Larne, Lisburn, Moyle, Newtownabbey
Armagh149,040Armagh, Craigavon
Down192,021Ards, Banbridge, Castlereagh, Down, Newry and Mourne, North Down
Londonderry129,063Coleraine, Derry, Limavady, Magherafelt
Tyrone125,742Cookstown, Dungannon and South Tyrone, Omagh, Strabane
4. North
Cumbria389,348Allerdale, Barrow-in-furness, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden, South Lakeland
Durham473,320Darlington, Durham
Newcastle County815,542Gateshead, Newcastle Upon Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland
Teesside415,775Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-tees
5. Lancashire
Lancashire1,114,767Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Burnley, Chorley, Fylde, Hyndburn, Lancaster, Pendle, Preston, Ribble Valley, Rossendale, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre
Merseyside1,012,561Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral
6. Greater Manchester
Central Manchester679,126Manchester, Salford, Trafford
Eastern Manchester704,962Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside
Western Manchester574,317Bolton, Bury, Wigan
7. Yorkshire
North Yorkshire606,464Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough, Selby, York
West Yorkshire1,551,413Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield
8. Humberside
Humber County681,109East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston Upon Hull, North East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire
Lincolnshire533,656Boston, East Lindsey, Lincoln, North Kesteven, South Holland, South Kesteven, West Lindsey
South Yorkshire972,509Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield
9. West Midlands
Black Country813,985Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton
Coventry and Solihull381,247Coventry, Solihull
10. East Midlands
Derbyshire770,634Amber Valley, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derby, Derbyshire Dales, Erewash, High Peak, North East Derbyshire, South Derbyshire
Leicestershire747,292Blaby, Charnwood, Harborough, Hinckley and Bosworth, Leicester, Melton, North West Leicestershire, Oadby and Wigston, Rutland
Nottinghamshire781,793Ashfield, Bassetlaw, Broxtowe, Gedling, Mansfield, Newark and Sherwood, Nottingham, Rushcliffe
Warwickshire408,572North Warwickshire, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Rugby, Stratford On Avon, Warwick
11. Severn
Cheshire775,064Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Halton, Warrington
Hereford and Worcestershire574,579Bromsgrove, Herefordshire, Malvern Hills, Redditch, Worcester, Wychavon, Wyre Forest
Shropshire351,600Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin
Staffordshire838,200Cannock Chase, East Staffordshire, Lichfield, Newcastle-under-lyme, South Staffordshire, Stafford, Staffordshire Moorlands, Stoke-on-trent, Tamworth
12. Wales
Clwyd377,308Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrexham
Dyfed282,003Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire
Gwent409,892Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport, Torfaen
Gwynedd136,627Gwynedd, Isle of Anglesey
Mid Glamorgan329,371Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf
South Glamorgan333,468Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan
West Glamorgan290,828Neath Port Talbot, Swansea
13. East Anglia
Bedfordshire424,157Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Luton
Cambridgeshire555,098Cambridge, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Huntingdonshire, Peterborough, South Cambridgeshire
Norfolk648,161Breckland, Broadland, Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, North Norfolk, Norwich, South Norfolk
Northamptonshire508,635Corby, Daventry, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, Northampton, South Northamptonshire, Wellingborough
Suffolk541,076Babergh, Forest Heath, Ipswich, Mid Suffolk, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal, Waveney
14. Essex
Buckinghamshire549,075Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, Milton Keynes, South Bucks, Wycombe
Essex1,281,048Basildon, Braintree, Brentwood, Castle Point, Chelmsford, Colchester, Epping Forest, Harlow, Maldon, Rochford, Southend-on-sea, Tendring, Thurrock, Uttlesford
Hertfordshire811,816Broxbourne, Dacorum, East Hertfordshire, Hertsmere, North Hertfordshire, St Albans, Stevenage, Three Rivers, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield
15. West
Bristol County792,486Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire
Gloucestershire458,427Cheltenham, Cotswold, Forest of Dean, Gloucester, Stroud, Tewkesbury
Oxfordshire489,557Cherwell, Oxford, South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse, West Oxfordshire
Wiltshire495,879Swindon, Wiltshire
16 & 17. Greater London
London Central943,066Camden, City of London, City of Westminster, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Tower Hamlets
London North East1,165,032Barking and Dagenham, Enfield, Haringey, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest
London North West1,100,603Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow
London South East1,131,665Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark
London South West936,542Kingston Upon Thames, Lambeth, Merton, Richmond Upon Thames, Sutton, Wandsworth
18. South West
Cornwall418,741Cornwall, Isles of Scilly
Devon871,148East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, North Devon, Plymouth, South Hams, Teignbridge, Torbay, Torridge, West Devon
Dorset565,465Bournemouth, Christchurch, East Dorset, North Dorset, Poole, Purbeck, West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland
Somerset402,391Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, Taunton Deane, West Somerset
19. South
Berkshire597,896Bracknell Forest, Reading, Slough, West Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Wokingham
Hampshire1,412,555Basingstoke and Deane, East Hampshire, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Hart, Havant, Isle of Wight, New Forest, Portsmouth, Rushmoor, Southampton, Test Valley, Winchester
Surrey824,148Elmbridge, Epsom and Ewell, Guildford, Mole Valley, Reigate and Banstead, Runnymede, Spelthorne, Surrey Heath, Tandridge, Waverley, Woking
20. South East
East Sussex592,022Brighton and Hove, Eastbourne, Hastings, Lewes, Rother, Wealden
Kent1,239,951Ashford, Canterbury, Dartford, Dover, Gravesham, Maidstone, Medway, Sevenoaks, Shepway, Swale, Thanet, Tonbridge and Malling, Tunbridge Wells
West Sussex606,582Adur, 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.

of Counties
Average County
East Midlands2,708,2914677,073
North West4,085,7335817,147
Northern Ireland1,169,1846194,864
South East5,273,1546878,859
South West4,494,0948561,762
West Midlands4,459,1767637,025
United Kingdom45,601,06080570,013

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%.

5.2 Electoral system

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.

6. Historical analysis of reform proposals in practice

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 NameSeat definitionsMembers
per seat
Total SizeElection frequencyElection method
2012 BillTwelve large regions
as defined in the Bill
9-48360 elected
+110 unelected
One third of members every five yearsParty List
County STV80 Historic counties4320All members at each general electionSTV
County FPTP80 Historic counties4320One quarter of members every yearFPTP
County AV80 Historic counties4320One quarter of members every yearAV

6.1 The 2012 Bill's proposals

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 DateCON %LAB %LIB %UKIP %Commons ResultCONLABLIBUKIPNATOTHLords Result
9 Jun 198343.528.326.0-Con majority543329013Lib coalition choice
11 Jun 198743.331.523.1-Con majority523727013Lib coalition choice
9 Apr 199242.835.218.3-Con majority534319023Lib coalition choice
1 May 199731.444.417.2-Lab majority395719023Lab/Lib coalition
7 Jun 200132.742.018.8-Lab majority395322033Lib coalition choice
5 May 200533.236.222.6-Lab majority414725034Lib coalition choice
5 May 201037.029.723.63.2Con/Lib coalition474127023Lib coalition choice
7 May 201537.831.28.112.9Con majority484161563Con/UKIP coalition

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.

6.2 County seats with multi-member STV

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 DateCON %LAB %LIB %UKIP %Commons ResultCONLABLIBUKIPNATOTHLords Result
9 Jun 198343.528.326.0-Con majority128728501124Con/Lib coalition
11 Jun 198743.331.523.1-Con majority12583800824Lib coalition choice
9 Apr 199242.835.218.3-Con majority119996301524Lib coalition choice
1 May 199731.444.417.2-Lab majority851336301524Lab/Lib coalition
7 Jun 200132.742.018.8-Lab majority901256401724Lab/Lib coalition
5 May 200533.236.222.6-Lab majority911108201225Lib coalition choice
5 May 201037.029.723.63.2Con/Lib coalition109948301024Lib coalition choice
7 May 201537.831.28.112.9Con majority11610418302824Hung

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.

6.3 County seats with first-past-the-post

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.

Election YearCON %LAB %LIB %UKIP %Commons ResultCONLABLIBUKIPNATOTHLords Result
198343.528.525.7-Con majority20076120824Con majority 80
198443.529.025.4-Con majority20470140824Con majority 88
198543.429.824.6-Con majority20468160824Con majority 88
198643.330.623.9-Con majority20468160824Con majority 88
198743.331.523.2-Con majority19971180824Con majority 78
198843.232.222.2-Con majority19277190824Con majority 64
198943.133.021.2-Con majority18781200824Con majority 54
199043.033.720.2-Con majority18285210824Con majority 44
199142.934.519.3-Con majority17891190824Con majority 36
199242.735.318.3-Con majority17396190824Con majority 26
199340.437.118.1-Con majority164104200824Con majority 8
199438.238.917.9-Con majority151116210824Con/Lib coalition
199536.040.817.6-Con majority137127240824Con/Lib coalition
199633.742.617.4-Con majority120142260824Lab/Lib coalition
199731.444.417.2-Lab majority102160260824Lab/Lib coalition
199831.843.817.6-Lab majority89173260824Lab majority 26
199932.143.318.0-Lab majority79183260824Lab majority 46
200032.442.718.4-Lab majority77185260824Lab majority 50
200132.742.118.8-Lab majority82181260724Lab majority 42
200232.840.719.7-Lab majority86176270724Lab majority 32
200333.039.220.7-Lab majority90171280724Lab majority 22
200433.137.721.7-Lab majority95164300724Lab majority 8
200533.236.222.6-Lab majority101155310924Lab/Lib coalition
200634.034.922.80.6Lab majority1081473101024Lab/Lib coalition
200734.733.623.01.3Lab majority1171383001124Lab/Lib coalition
200835.532.323.21.9Lab majority1251312801224Hung
200936. majority1311232901324Hung
201037.029.723.63.2Con/Lib coalition1361163101324Con/Lib coalition
201137. coalition1411122901424Con/Lib coalition
201237.330.317.47.0Con/Lib coalition1461102501524Con/Lib coalition
201337.530.614.39.0Con/Lib coalition1511111901524Con/Lib coalition
201437.630.911.210.9Con/Lib coalition1561131201524Con/Lib coalition
201537.831.28.112.9Con majority158106802424Con/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.

6.4 County seats with the Alternative Vote system

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.

Election YearCON %LAB %LIB %UKIP %Commons ResultCONLABLIBUKIPNATOTHLords Result
198343.528.525.7-Con majority194741601224Con majority 68
198443.529.025.4-Con majority197691801224Con majority 74
198543.429.824.6-Con majority198662001224Con majority 76
198643.330.623.9-Con majority197662101224Con majority 74
198743.331.523.2-Con majority193702201124Con majority 66
198843.232.222.2-Con majority189732401024Con majority 58
198943.133.021.2-Con majority18477260924Con majority 48
199043.033.720.2-Con majority18080280824Con majority 40
199142.934.519.3-Con majority17783280824Con majority 34
199242.735.318.3-Con majority16991280824Con majority 18
199340.437.118.1-Con majority159100280924Con/Lib coalition
199438.238.917.9-Con majority1461122801024Con/Lib coalition
199536.040.817.6-Con majority1311252901124Hung
199633.742.617.4-Con majority1171373001224Lab/Lib coalition
199731.444.417.2-Lab majority991533201224Lab/Lib coalition
199831.843.817.6-Lab majority841663401224Lab majority 12
199932.143.318.0-Lab majority721773501224Lab majority 34
200032.442.718.4-Lab majority671813601224Lab majority 42
200132.742.118.8-Lab majority721763701124Lab majority 32
200232.840.719.7-Lab majority761704001024Lab majority 20
200333.039.220.7-Lab majority84160430924Lab/Lib coalition
200433.137.721.7-Lab majority90151470824Lab/Lib coalition
200533.236.222.6-Lab majority95142500924Lab/Lib coalition
200634.034.922.80.6Lab majority1011335201024Lab/Lib coalition
200734.733.623.01.3Lab majority1061255401124Lab/Lib coalition
200835.532.323.21.9Lab majority1121165501324Lib coalition choice
200936. majority1181085601424Lib coalition choice
201037.029.723.63.2Con/Lib coalition1201095301424Lib coalition choice
201137. coalition1201144801424Lib coalition choice
201237.330.317.47.0Con/Lib coalition1251203801324Con/Lib coalition
201337.530.614.39.0Con/Lib coalition1291282701224Hung
201437.630.911.210.9Con/Lib coalition1401261801224Hung
201537.831.28.112.9Con majority1501151002124Hung

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.

7. Conclusion

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.


A. Version history

B. Useful links

Some relevant web links: Please let us know of other links that Electoral Calculus readers might find useful.
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