Lords Reform update – Autumn 2008

So it’s finally happened.  The British Government published a White Paper earlier this year entitled An Elected Second Chamber.  It feels as though it might actually be Government policy to have one.  Yet there are a number of quite important issues yet to be pinned down.

First is the timescale, which seems to be strikingly unambitious.  Jack Straw and his fellow ministers are relying on the goodwill of the Conservative Party to agree a common commitment in their manifesto for real reform of the second chamber during the new Parliament after 2010.  Since the likelihood of a Labour majority after the General Election  seems to wane by the day (though the probability of a Conservative one is far less certain than the pundits like to suggest), surely the Government should grasp the nettle now, while it has a working majority.  They would receive warm support from the Liberal Democrat benches, and there are some Conservatives who would want to stick to their manifesto commitment for an 80% elected chamber.  David Cameron has already said that reforming the second chamber is a ‘third-term priority’ for any Government he leads, so we mustn’t risk leaving any of this to him.

Secondly, the electoral system by which Senators would be chosen is still much in doubt.  The Conservative Party has stuck doggedly by its insistence that the new chamber should be elected in what they call ‘cities and counties’ on a first-past-the-post system.  That would produce an astonishingly disproportionate result, and achieve precisely what everyone says they don’t want in an elected second chamber:  a shadow or a pale reflection of the House of Commons. 

Besides, does the MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, Nick Gibb, who is charged with making this absurd case on behalf of the Conservative Party, really want the ‘Sussex Senator’ breathing down his neck at every opportunity, taking up casework on behalf of his constituents and pontificating on his voting record in the media?  The public might quite like the opportunity of a choice of representatives (which is why we’ve long argued for multi-member constituencies in the House of Commons) but the present strict parliamentary protocol that only the MP for a particular area can deal with constituents from that area does provide a very good link between an area and its representative that tends to transcend party.  The second chamber should be about revising legislation and scrutinising the executive.  MPs have less and less time to do that work now that they are expected (rightly) to spend many more hours in days at constituency engagements, conducting surgeries, and dealing with constituency correspondence. 

Perversely, some of the critics of a fairer system of election for the Senate base their argument on the impact on the Commons.  If Senators are seen to be more representative than MPs, they think that will reduce the reputation of the Commons in the eyes of the electors.  The obvious answer to that is to get on with electoral reform for the Commons too.  More significant and more subtle is the thought that Senators might have a more up to date mandate than MPs, if they are elected in the middle of a House of Commons term.  However, the Jack Straw White Paper, and the Cross-Party Group on which many of its proposals were based, were determined that members of  the Senate should only be elected in tranches of one third, so that at any one time only a minority could have a more recent mandate than MPs.

To ensure the new chamber is effective and representative, we have argued for a Single Transferable Vote system.  It gets away from the unpopular party lists used in the European Parliament elections, and offers voters a choice of candidate as well as of party.  You rank your votes in preferential order, so the least popular candidates lose, and the most popular overall are elected.  Voters can choose to support candidates of a particular gender or ethnicity, or with particular views on an issue of importance to them.  Of course, some people would also choose to vote across the party ticket for, say, all the Liberal Democrats or all the Conservatives or all the Labour candidates.  But even then, they’d get to choose which of those candidates they thought most able or appropriate, so you might find that a Blairite stood for Labour alongside a member of the Socialist Campaign Group.  Even if your party loyalty is to Labour, you probably have a good idea about which of those you prefer, and you’d get to express it at the ballot box.

The third unresolved issue is the proportion of elected members.  The House of Commons supported 80% or 100%, with the latter gaining an overall majority on the night.  Peers refused to support any elected options in a display of cowardice and insularity akin to turkeys voting to defer Christmas.  And they can only defer it.  In all, I am not persuaded that an appointed element is essential.  There is much talk of the need for ‘experts’ in the second chamber, but many of the existing experts are really ex-experts; people who were once at the top of their game, and are now more or less at the end of the road.  In any case, nobody has ever really made a compelling case to me that experts in embryology should have a vote in Parliament about education, or that experts in defence should hold pivotal positions in relation to the National Health Service.  That said, there does appear to be something of a consensus around the 80% option, and I certainly won’t complain if that is where we end up.  We could continue to appoint people with senior experience in public life and public policy generally (rather than ‘experts’ in a particular field), who would not otherwise stand for election.  They could include former Prime Ministers, former heads of the Civil Service, and so on.

Before the white paper was published, Ministers did undertake in exchanges with me in the House of Lords that draft clauses would be produced for a Bill.  This would at least set the process on the legislative road, after so many decades languishing on the byways of various learned, but powerless, committees and commissions.  Indeed, why not make a decision about the electoral system, and present a full Bill to Parliament for pre-legislative scrutiny in a proper Joint Committee of the both Houses.  We could at least lay the tracks for the Bill to get on the statute book after the next general election if we iron out minor areas of disagreement, and difficulties in drafting, at this early stage.

We are further forward now than ever I imagined after Tony Blair was re-elected in 2005.  Whatever his other failings, Gordon Brown is at least letting Jack Straw and the Ministry of Justice make real progress with this important job.  Yet so much of the criticism presently levelled at the Government is for failing to have a vision, failing to know what they’re for, and why they’re in office.  Surely this is an opportunity to do something that will be seen as a turning point in history for our constitution:  The moment when we said no to patronage gaining places in Parliament.  The moment when Parliament opened the doors of both its Houses and let the people in.  Gordon Brown should do it now.

Paul Tyler

September 2008

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