It’s quite rare, but from time to time you are thrown a somewhat bizarre idea that makes you think. This evening was one of those occasions. I was discussing politics with a university friend, Sarah Mulley, and discussion strayed onto the issue of reform of the House of Lords. I have a simple idea she said.
Why don’t we put House of Lords reform and Electoral Reform together, and have a fully proportional election system for the House of Lords. There’s no constituency link with the Lords as it is, so we would not need to worry about that.
Now, before ridiculing this idea, give it some thought. Both Sarah and I agreed that it’s a very sub-optimal solution. But what we have presently in the UK is even worse. Further, proper electoral reform in the House of Commons is unrealistic presently, and the government realises more reform is needed in The Lords.
The result of all of this would be a sort of coalition arrangement in The Lords – allowing people to vote for The Greens, Lib Dems etc., yet the more traditional two party system would remain in the House of Commons. The constituency link would also be maintained there.
So how about it? Roll electoral reform and Lords reform into one. It might be a messy, pragmatic solution, but it might just work.
I’m well aware of all the pros and cons of the various systems (although I am more of a fan of STV than AMS). This issue is what is realistic though – what might we manage to actually get? That’s why PR in the Lords might be a start.
If we adopted AMS for Commons, as for the Scottish Parliament, we wouldn’t need to abandon the constituency link, but just to increase the constituency sizes. A smaller number of top-up seats would yield a less proportional result but require a smaller increase in constituency size. Even if the top-up consisted of only 100 seats (with the existing number of seats reduced by 100 and constituencies increased by 10% in size), the result produced would be more proportional than what we have now (though still far from proportional), with Labour winning perhaps 47% of seats (instead of 55%) on 35% of the vote, the Tories winning 31% (the same) on 35% of the vote, the Lib Dems winning 19% (instead of 10%) on 22% of the vote, and the Scottish nationalist and Welsh nationalist contingents also slightly increased. For convenience, I excluded Northern Ireland parties from my figures at all stages.
I believe Jenkins advocated a system with a relatively small top-up (was it 15%?) plus the Alternative Vote in the constituency elections. AV for the constituency elections seems a great improvement to traditional AMS, but why not go further and allow the party lists to be ranked in order of preference, so that if a party list fails to reach the threshold, the second-preference votes are allocated a different list? This could be called AV++.
STV is a great system if we decide that we can reconcile ourselves to multi-member constituencies at least three times larger than the constituencies we have now. A possible compromise would be to have four- or five-member constituencies in urban areas and one- or two-member constituencies in rural. However, since the rural areas would less have less PR, there’s a risk that a compromise of that kind would benefit Tories.
The issue of electoral reform for the Commons could re-emerge. Peter Hain is likely to raise it as part of his campaign for the deputy leadership. He favours AV (which is not necessarily more proportional than FPTP, sometimes even less so, but does guarantee 50%+ of support for each MP).
The party list system that we’ve adopted for European elections is unpopular and I sometimes think that it was adopted in a deliberate bid to discredit PR, because on democratic grounds STV would be far superior. Alternatively, open party lists could have used (various European countries have mechanisms for allowing voters optionally to rank candidates within lists instead of merely choosing a list).
I’d hope that if we adopted a PR system for the Lords, we’d go for AMS, STV, or open lists, and not the closed list system, which I don’t think will ever command public support in this country.
It’s an interesting idea with some obvious things to be said for it, and with no disrespect to your friend, it has been suggested before….
A key objection made to this proposal is that it would then be very hard to treat a chamber elected in such a fashion as a second chamber with limited legitimacy, especially (but not only) when the other chamber remains elected in such an obviously more unfair way.