May 2010 Archives

Whither the Union?

A revised House of Lords may be the most surprising outcome of Britain's new coalition government.

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The new Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition deal includes one intriguing detail: a commitment to a partially- or wholly-elected House of Lords. This being a Conservative-led government, and the nature of the House of Lords in the UK political system being what it is, I don’t think anyone particularly expects the renovation of the Lords to go quickly or simply; it will almost certainly be a matter of compromise after fudge after delay, with most of the difficult decisions kicked into the long grass until the more troublesome problems retire or die. I would be surprised if, by the end of the current parliament, we had anything greater than 25% of the Lords elected. But it’s the method of electing members to the upper House which may have the most lasting effect on British politics.

Not that this will be the stated intention of anyone involved; British governments are elected, and staffed almost entirely from, the House of Commons, and the Commons would have very little inclination to surrender power to the upper House under most circumstances. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike have talked about renovating politics, and it’s tempting to save money by sweeping away a number of old fossils and Labour cronies (13 years of Prime Ministerial patronage adds up), but after a bruising experience cobbling together a coalition in one House, the last thing any new government wants is to make more problems for itself in the other. However it is reformed and composed, the House of Lords should be expected to remain a revising chamber, restraining the excesses and haste of the Commons, possibly, but in case of serious conflict determinedly subservient to the wishes of the one House that is truly popularly elected.

And there’s the rub: you can’t do that if you have a House of Lords that is as legitimately-elected as the Commons.

(Note that you’d have this problem even if you weren’t a self-interested politician: if you’re going to elect two legislative chambers in similar ways, why bother having two of them?)

Countries that have a lower House and an upper House tend to have the lower House be regularly democratically-elected, and the upper House either indirectly-elected (e.g. French Senators are elected by and from local, departmental and regional councillors), elected in a way that disproportionally favours some regions over others (e.g. the USA allots each State in the Union two Senators, irrespective of population), or both. To encourage a long-term approach, upper Houses tend to also only have a certain proportion of the membership up for re-election at any given time, unlike the lower House where the entire membership is force to stand for re-election every time. That way, if an election goes against you, you can say “Hey, most of the House is still fine”, and move on.

I can’t imagine that any UK government would decide to have the House of Lords be elected using the same constituencies as the House of Commons. That would be such an amazing challenge to the legitimacy of MPs at best (if the same party won both the Commons and Lords seats), and the legitimacy of the government at worse (if its majority in the Commons was contradicted by the results in the Lords, because this is a mid-term election and voters want to send a message). So not only would a UK government, reforming the House of Lords, decide to have members elected to longer terms, but only refresh the House by thirds or quarters at any given election; I think it would choose different constituencies from the Commons. And I think the only practical choice is to choose to have the Lords elected from much larger geographical areas than the Commons.

Which suggests PR.

Now, normally this would be anathema to the Tories, but remember that the point of the House of Lords is to be less important than the Commons. Ideally the Tories would like the Lords to be elected by a disproportionately rural or wealthy electorate, so as to build in a long-term advantage for them, but even if it were politically possible to come up with an indirect electoral system in the 21st century, there’s an annoyingly-large number of Liberal Democrat councillors in the UK. Failing that, their best bet might be to come up with some sort of regionally-elected chamber so they can say that all regions are represented in government, and thus fend off any demands for more regional devolution, while similarly having it elected by a confusing and indecisive electoral process, which they can then point at and scorn whenever anyone asks about reforming the way we elect MPs.

Which is why I think we’ll see people seriously talking about a House of Lords elected using list-based PR on a county level. This has the advantage, to the Tories, of making sure that rural counties elect a disproportionate number of Conservatives, while exiling Labour peers in urban/unitary councils, and pacifying members of the smaller parties by saying “hey, you get representatives in the Lords, what are you complaining about?”

And PR will mean that the Tories have non-trivial numbers of elected members in all nations of the Union, even Scotland. Given that David Cameron desperately fears being the last Prime Minister of the Union, but had to choose a Liberal Democrat to be Scottish Secretary because he’s only got one Scottish MP from his own party, I think he might take this gamble.

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