In publishing his proposals for Lords Reform, our Deputy PM invited constructive criticism of the proposals.

He didn’t get it.

Rather, he got a chorus of abuse from both the Tories and Labour. Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, called it “a dog’s dinner, with nobody happy” – and that’s a nice summing up of the attitude in the Commons.

But although I support Lords Reform, I’ll take the Deputy PM’s invitation and give some constructive criticism.

Let’s go through the proposals again:

  • 300 members
  • 80% elected, 20% appointed
  • Members elected for single 15-year terms
  • Elections by STV
  • Elections in thirds (80 members at each election)
  • Reduction in Bishop numbers from 26 to 12.

I’ll just outline my problems/agreements.

No issue regarding 300 members; average attendance is only ever about 400 at the moment, any more would be unnecessary and expensive. The United States makes do with 100 Senators, while France – with a similar population to Britain – has 343.

No significant issue with the 80% elected, 20% appointed mix. Like Clegg, I’d prefer a fully elected House; but the case for preserving some independence and expertise is strong, and the vast majority of peers/Senators would have a mandate from the people, so appointed members will have little effect on votes. I also think this option is most likely to gather agreement in a Parliament seemingly obsessed by the issue.

I have a significant problem, however, with a single 15-year term.

Firstly, the fact that it is single makes a mockery of the idea that having an elected upper house would allow voters to throw people they don’t like out of office. If the Lord/Senator doesn’t need to seek re-election, they can pretty much do as they like secure in the knowledge that the voters can’t express their dissatisfaction with them.

Introducing right of recall might rectify this a bit, but it depends upon the size of constituencies. Too large, and a by-election on a single-winner basis is ridiculous. As the Deputy PM’s White Paper points out, “it would be necessary to replace members elected through [PR] with a candidate elected on a majoritarian basis..holding by-elections across larger Electoral Districts has the potential to result in significant costs.”

The government has suggested instead that “elected member would be temporarily replaced by a substitute member until the next election. Under STV, if the departing member stood for election from a particular party, the substitute would be the candidate from the same party in that Electoral District, who, at the point the final seat in that district was awarded, had achieved the highest number of votes… without gaining a seat.” But this denies the electorate a direct say in the matter.

These problems can be contained by the use of smaller seats e.g. 3-4 members, as in Scottish local councils. But too small, and the constituencies have little claim to be proportional – a 3-member seat, whilst ensuring few wasted votes, doesn’t fit the government’s wish for “proportional representation”.

So introducing recall wouldn’t cut it. Instead, at each election, you have to be able to throw out of office/keep in office the person who has served you in the upper house.

Then there’s the use of a 15-year term. This makes my issues with the single term even worse. This is tied to the elections being in thirds, I understand: but how on earth can it be ‘democratic’ to restrict people’s right to choose one of their senators/Lords by making them wait fifteen years?

That length of time between elections makes the issue of ‘accountability’ hellishly difficult to solve. Given that a large STV seat makes by-elections hard (see above) voters will have to wait 15 years to hold their representative to account for their actions. Add to that the fact that they actually can’t, because the term is non-renewable, and you’ve got not just a “dog’s dinner” but a total sham of democracy, to be frank.

There’s no complaint from my quarter about elections being conducted by the single transferable vote. It’s a very good voting system, and in fact in our proposals for constitutional reform the Green Party recommends electing a reformed Lords using the system. However, I would put one point.

If non-renewable 15-year terms aren’t stripped out of this Bill, and recalling Lords or holding by-elections is difficult because of the size of STV seats, then we can’t use STV. We’d have to use either an ‘open list’ system or a version of the Additional Members’ System (AMS) using open lists. AMS would allow for a constituency by-election/recall to occur, or for a pretty ‘democratic’ transfer of power to that person who is second on the party list.

But if we were to change the Bill in the way I think is right, then the single transferable vote is appropriate.

As regards elections in thirds, I’ve partly dealt with this above as it’s tied into the 15-year term proposal, but I’ll just add that I dislike this as well. Tied in with the 15-year term, it could promote voting by party rather than by person – simply put, the voters could hate a certain Senator/Lord but be unable to remove him or her, and so they’d refuse to elect a party colleague instead.

That would make a mockery of STV, which is supposed to disregard parties. So I’d say strip out this proposal too and replace it with full elections. It’s also worth noting that this mechanism was the same one that the founding fathers in the US used to prevent the upper house becoming overwhelmed by the will of the people, as they could only ever change 1/3 of its composition at each election.

Finally, the reduction in Bishop numbers. It’s already been pointed out that this actually results in a proportionate increase in Bishops because although their numbers have been cut, the number of Lords in general has also been cut by proportionately more.

I’m of the view that Bishops have no place in our second chamber – or if they absolutely must be there, they should be joined by Imams, Rabbis and the like to provide a total of 26 or so ‘religious’ representatives. But if it was up to me, we would not have religion in our second chamber.

So. Those are my constructive views on the deputy PM’s Lords Reform proposals. Let’s hope that Labour decides to follow that example – because if it does, then these reforms can be made so much better and their impact can be more lasting.

About Elliot Folan

Elliot Folan is a postgraduate student and political activist at the University of East Anglia. They are a keen follower of polls and election statistics, despite only occasionally managing to win elections themselves. Their most treasured possession is a Troy & Abed mug from the TV series Community, and they aspire to be a combination of Abed Nadir and Britta Perry when they grow up.