Keir Starmer is reported as saying he wants to abolish the Lords. This may be a dead cat, flung into the room to divert attention from his refusal to address other constitutional issues – think Brexit, think Proportional Representation (PR) – which are supported by the great majority of Labour voters and members. Nevertheless it is worth examining.
The House of Lords currently has 784 members and is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament in the world to be larger than its lower house and is the second-largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People ‘s Congress. Of these 784 members, 92 sit as hereditary peers. The Lords Spiritual account for another 26 archbishops and bishops of the Church of England. The rest are life peers and peeresses appointed by leaders of the various political parties.
Not one of these individuals was elected by the people (another obvious similarity with the Chinese National People’s Congress). The hereditary peers are there because their fathers were and they have been chosen by … other hereditary peers. The Church of England is represented by virtue of being ‘the state religion’ (and the first nationalised industry), even though it represents only about 14% of the population.
Life peers are nominated by the leaders of the political parties in the Commons often, apparently (and this may shock you), in exchange for a hefty financial contribution to party coffers.
There is absolutely no justification for the hereditary principle or the theological nonsense of a state religion – particularly as the latest census shows that Christianity is now a minority sport in the UK.
But defenders of the status quo maintain that life peers are often experts in a particular field and therefore able to contribute sensibly to debates. Well, so what? They still haven’t been elected by you or me.
Why have a second chamber?
We need to ask why we need a second chamber and then consider how it might be constituted. The Lords’ alleged role is to contribute to making and shaping laws, checking and challenging the work of the government although it has in effect no power to veto the work of the Commons. OK, can’t argue with that. But if it can’t veto proposed legislation, it is rather a waste of space and money.
Several proposals have been made for reforming the Lords, but none has grappled with the anti-democratic nonsense of hereditary peers or representatives of a minority sect.
How to elect an upper house
In the United States senators are directly elected by First Past the Post (FPTP) by the people (or, at least, those who haven’t been gerrymandered out of existence). In Germany the members of the Bundesrsat are appointed by the governments of the 16 individual Länder. In other words they are indirectly elected (but, of course, each Land uses PR to elect its Landtag). In the Netherlands the members of the Eerste Kamer are elected indirectly, by the members of the provincial assemblies (which are also elected by PR).
In Ireland the Seanad consists of 60 senators, composed as follows: 11 nominated by the Taoiseach, six elected by the graduates of certain Irish universities, and 43 elected from five vocational areas (agriculture, labour etc.). The electorate consists of TDs (MPs), outgoing senators and members of city and county councils. The vocational panels are redolent of Mussolini’s corporate state, but at least there is a democratic element.
In the Czech Republic the Senát consists of 81 members directly elected by FPTP in two rounds. In France the Sénat consists of 348 members elected indirectly by an electorate of some 150,000 regional and departmental councillors, with 10% elected by the National Assembly.
A new upper house for the UK
If we accept that the United Kingdom is (still) a united kingdom, it makes sense for the constituent parts to have reserved representation in the upper house: not just Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but also the various regions of England which have a definable identity. Obvious examples are Cornwall, because of its cultural identity, Yorkshire, Geordieland, the Home Counties and so on, as recently proposed by our Bob Copeland. But how should they be elected?
Members of Mr Starmer’s party – and the electorate as a whole – would expect the newly constituted upper house to be elected by PR: it’s fair and inclusive. The fairest of all forms of PR is, of course, STV: the Single Transferable Vote. But should the members of the reformed upper house be elected directly by the people (as in the USA and the Czech Republic) or indirectly by members of regional authorities (as in Germany and the Netherlands)?
If the members of the new House are indirectly elected by regional authorities, how are the latter elected? If not by PR, then the whole exercise is a farce.
But – and it’s a big but – if the members of the upper house are directly elected by PR it would enjoy democratic legitimacy which the Commons – elected by FPTP – clearly lacks. This could cause major problems: if the two houses disagree on something fundamental, which house could be deemed to speak for the people?
The House of Lords is an expensive insult to democracy and opinion polls show that the great majority want to see it reformed. But if Mr Starmer is serious about replacing it with something democratic, then he will be obliged, whether he likes it or not, to accept the need for PR. And once he has done that, he can go on to accept that Brexit is a disaster and that the majority of the electorate don’t want it. As Theo Stone remarks in Labour List,
“… if the Labour leadership wants to guarantee that the UK has a more inclusive and democratic future, then it needs to accept that PR has a role to play in both Houses’.
Simply refusing to accept that constitutional issues are a priority will get Mr Starmer nowhere.
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