House of Lords Reform

The hereditary House of Lords was widely perceived as undemocratic. The present mixture of hereditary and appointed members was intended as an improvement, but some people think it is even worse because it gives too much power to the Prime Minister of the day. It remains hard to reach a consensus on what to do about the House of Lords.

The view of STV Action is that several options merit serious consideration, but all STV Action asks of its supporters is that they support the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Supporters are free to hold their own individual views on all other issues and we do not wish to divide them from each other or us so we do not ask them to support or oppose any other political campaigns, such as House of Lords reform, and STV Action itself does not campaign on any of them.

Here the author discusses some options for reforming the House of Lords:

Abolish it. This is seemingly the simplest and most democratic option, leaving us to be governed by the fully elected House of Commons, but it would be desirable to improve the Commons’ power to scrutinise Government legislation, perhaps by increasing the powers of cross-party committees. To avoid the risk of an elected dictatorship, it would also be essential to curb the power of the Commons to prolong the life of Parliament without elections. Further, how democratic would rule by the Commons alone be, so long as its members are elected by the essentially undemocratic “First Past The Post” voting system, which gives overall power to a party with under 40% of the votes?

A wholly appointed House. It would be unacceptable and undemocratic to allow the Prime Minister of the day to make all the appointments and not much better to give the power to some committee or commission of establishment worthies. Anyway, who would appoint them?

Direct elections. Although widely perceived as the best and most democratic option, it has its own difficulties:

  • An elected Upper House would be dominated by political parties. Although the extent of the domination might depend on the voting system used, it could not be avoided completely.
  • If both Houses are elected, they might both claim a democratic mandate and compete for supremacy.
  • If the Government of the day controls both Houses, the upper one might become a rubber stamp for the Government instead of scrutinising Government legislation as the present House of Lords does.
  • If the main Opposition party (or a combination of opposition parties) controls the reformed Upper House, it may obstruct Government legislation for political reasons, regardless of the merits of the legislation.

There is an additional problem for electoral reformers. We could do no other than support a proportionate voting system (STV Action would have to support STV) for a reformed Upper House but there is a feeling that the two Houses should not be elected by the same method. Therefore, there is a danger that an Upper House elected by STV would be counter-productive for the campaign to reform voting for the Commons.

Mixed system. Some advocate, as a good old British compromise, a mixed system – usually a combination of directly elected and appointed which, it is hoped, would combine the best of each. The author fears it would more likely combine the worst of each and sees it as the solution only for those who cannot make up their minds,

Indirect elections by civic societies. The Upper House would represent various interests while the Commons would represent voters as a whole (although many of us doubt the latter with the present voting system). Elections by such bodies as trades unions, professional institutes, learned societies, women’s organizations etc would overcome the problems that beset some of the other options but those of us who are members of more than one organization would have more than one vote, while some people would have no vote. It would also, in effect, privatise elections to the Upper House. Strict rules would be needed to govern the voting system or systems allowed and, to reduce suspicion of corruption, the Electoral Commission or some other public body would have to oversee the elections by private organizations that may not have much experience in running elections, except for their own governing bodies. The biggest problem would probably be deciding which organizations should be allowed to elect members of the Upper House and which should not.

Indirect elections by local authorities. The Upper House would represent geographical areas while the Commons would represent voters as a whole (although many of us doubt the latter with the present voting system). It would have the benefits of indirect elections by civic societies but with fewer pitfalls because the elections would be run by local authorities with experience of running elections and all local authorities of a certain type would participate so there should be no disputes as there would be among civic societies.

Random selection. Members would be chosen by Random Selection, rather like juries are selected. This could be totally random or the “representative sample” method used for opinion polls.

An appropriate proportion would support each political party but not owe anything to its leadership so it would be politically representative, but independent from the political parties. An appropriate proportion would hold various religious and philosophical views, be they employers or employees, men or women, black or white, young or old etc., so it would also be representative in non-political ways. A House whose members were chosen this way would be:

  • independent,
  • composed differently from the Commons,
  • representative of the nation as a whole.

No system is perfect but the author personally prefers this one.

Click here [ NOT FOUND] for our editor’s personal evidence to the Royal Commission.


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