In a companion post, I summarise the recent round of blogging about House of Lords Reform, and highlight some common themes on which there seems to be quite a bit of consensus. In this post, I offer my own, slightly unusual suggestion for House of Lords reform, which I think would be one way to achieve many of those objectives.
Broadly speaking, we seem to be in favour of an elected second chamber, but want it to have a different composition from the House of Commons. We want a second chamber that is less subject to political patronage and which is outside the reach of political party control, so that it can exercise independent judgement. We want, if possible, to include people with expertise and experience, rather than those with a career in politics.
A Senate elected by non-geographic constituences:
- 400 Senators elected by vocational groups (eg shopworkers, civil servants, farmers, small businesses, stockbrokers, artists)
- 150 Senators elected by the country’s largest membership organizations (eg Trades Unions, Churches, Mosques, UK Athletics, Automobile Association, RSPB, Oxfam, Football Supporters’ Club)
- 50 Senators elected by designated professional, industry and representative groups (eg CBI, Royal Society, British Medical Association, Royal Geographic Society)
The election rules:
- One third of the Senate to be elected every two years for a six year term
- No Senator may serve for more than two terms.
- Each voter can vote in one election for a vocational seat, and in up to three other constituencies. Voters must be a member of a membership organisation to vote in that organization’s constituency
- Vocational seats allocated in proportion to the number of people employed in that sector of the economy. (Approx 100,000 voters per seat.)
- Vocational seats would be allocated for self employed, unemployed, disabled and retired people
- Election by Single Transferable Vote in each constituency (eg 5 seats for election by civil service)
- Ballots simultaneously by post, internet and in the workplace.
- Political parties (as designated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act) may not organize, campaign, raise funds for or otherwise endorse candidates for the Senate
- A Senator may not stand for the House of Commons within ten years of leaving the Senate
- An MP may not stand for the Senate within ten years of leaving the House of Commons
- Senators may not hold paid or unpaid government posts.
Geographic constituencies are effective ways to organise people into groups with shared interests – for example, in the provision of roads, sewerage, schools and hospitals in a local areas. Many people living in a constituency will share some economic interests – for example, many of the people of Chatham have an economic interest in the well-being of the naval shipbuilding industry.
But where we live is a one-dimensional measure of our interests. For example, I have many interests in common with my fellow civil servants that I do not necessarily share with other residents of Southwark. We are likely to share a particular interest in funding and organisation of public services, of the independence of the civil service. Pensioners are likely to share interests in the value of the state pension, the effects of inflation and interest rates on savings, the provision of nursing care, and the provision of public transport. These communities of interest are not well represented by geographical constituencies, because they are shared by a geographically dispersed group of people.
A non-geographically elected Senate could meet many of the goals for an second chamber. It would provide a mechanism for expert scrutiny. Vocational constituencies would be likely to elect Senators with a good understanding of that sector of the economy; and the organisational representatives would be likely to be experts in their field. There would be little danger of an second chamber that mirrored the composition of the House of Commons, and so pointlessly rubber stamped all proposals. The rules preventing MPs from becoming Senators, and vice versa, and forbidding Senators from becoming members of the Government, would reduce the scope for political patronage. Senators would have democratic legitimacy while being acknowledged leaders in their field.
The closest precedent is Seanad Éireann, the Senate of Ireland. Seanad Éireann consists of sixty members:
- Eleven appointed by the Prime Minister
- Six elected by the graduates of two Irish universities.
- Forty-three elected from five special panels of nominees by an electorate consisting of MPs, senators and local councillors. Each of the five panels consists, in theory, of individuals possessing special knowledge of, or experience in, one of five specific fields: Education, the arts, the Irish language and Irish culture and literature; agriculture and the fisheries; Labour (organised or otherwise); Industry and commerce (including engineering and architecture); Public administration and social services (including the voluntary sector).
The main difference with the UK Senate would be that the Senators would be directly elected, rather than elected by panels of wise people; and there would be no appointees.
Bishop Hill has kindly drawn my attention to the system of functional constituencies in Hong Kong, which operated on these lines (and came in for some criticism from Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor). The problems encountered there can be avoided.
What this proposal does not do is follow the precedent of the United States or South Africa of using a second chamber to increase the relative representation of smaller states (or provinces, in the case of South Africa) compared to the more proportional allocation of seats in the lower house. This is in part because the non-English nations of the United Kingdom (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) are already more than proportionately represented in the lower house (as are rural areas), so it is not necessary to balance the lower house with a stronger voice in the second chamber. It is also because this proposal consciously seeks to move away from representation on the basis of geographic location.
There appears to be a broad consensus that the current position of a largely appointed House of Lords should not be the end of the process. However, progress towards an elected House of Lords has been paralysed by the lack of agreement on a particular solution – even though almost everybody agrees that almost any of the other options is preferable to what we have now. Until we can form a consensus about the shape of the second chamber, we are likely to be stuck with what we have got. But there do seem to be some broad principles on which we can all agree which might guide us towards a solution that would have broad appeal. Though it not familiar, I believe that this proposal actually meets many of the goals that have been articulated for a reformed second chamber.