House of Lords Reform 2: A suggestion

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.

The proposal 

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.

9 thoughts on “House of Lords Reform 2: A suggestion”

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  2. Brian Barder has taken the trouble to respond in detail to my proposal for House of Lords reform.

    Without wanting to prolong the debate ad nauseam, his questions deserve a reply.

    Taking the last point first, I agree that we risk allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. I would prefer almost any of the proposals for an elected House of Lords to the system of appointments and cronyism that we now have. I agree that we would be better to compromise on anything that can command support for change than to resist in favour of something we consider even better.

    That said, one reason for tabling this idea is that it does seem to me to respond to many of the objections that are given to an elected House of Lords. It does not recreate or duplicate the party political organisation of the Commons and it allows expertise to be represented in the Senate, while still having the legitimacy of an elected second chamber.

    On the question of what it would do: I would give the Senate more power than the House of Lords has today. It would, after all, be a legitimate, representative legislative chamber. I would allow it to debate and vote on financial matters; and I would allow it to vote down (ie not just delay) any legislation which (in the opinion of the Supreme Court) was not a manifesto commitment of the majority party in the House of Commons.

    Is 600 too many? Maybe, but for the reasons you give, many people would not in fact want to speak on most issues. Allowing the farmers’ representative to speak on an urban planning bill seems no more bizarre than allowing Scottish MPs to vote on the English NHS. And I would rather have a Senate composed of people who are an expert on something than a bunch of professional politicians.

    Candidates would be eligible to stand on the basis of collecting a sufficient number of nominations (say, 5% of the constituency). The problem of voting for the right candidate is, in principle, no harder (and in some ways easier) than voting in geographic constituencies. Farmers could post their manifestos on a website for people to read, and could have a mailshot to all voters registered to that constituency.

    As for churches, and other membership organisations, I would simply allow the largest membership organisations to be represented, including bridge groups or scientologists, if their membership is large enough. I would make no attempt to differentiate on the basis of function or beliefs.

    Eligibility to vote in each constituency would be by self identification for non-membership organisations (but each voter can vote in only three non-vocational constituencies, so they have to choose among their priorities.)

    I agree that the priority is to move beyond where we are now, to an elected House of Lords. My proposal – which can doubtless be improved upon – is an attempt to articulate an idea which might command sufficient support from all sides to break a deadlock. It is certainly not intended to disrupt movement towards any other, more conventional proposal if a consensus can be found.


  3. 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

    Is there an example of a second chamber in which politics does not raise its head?

    Owen replies: I can’t think of one, though the US Senate is arguably less partisan than the House of Representatives.

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  5. David B. Wildgoose

    Great Idea. But what about those who are not members of any eligible organisation?

    Rather than disenfranchise them, why not also allow a handful of members selected on a random basis, much like the jury system? These could act as a counterbalance to the kind of people who self-select themselves to stand for political office.

  6. It also occurs to me that a legislative chamber whose members are in many, perhaps most, cases chosen on the basis of their occupations will tend to aggravate the perennial failing of our constitutional institutions in promoting and defending the narrow sectional interests of producers at the expense of the much wider interests of consumers, despite the fact that everyone is a consumer whereas by no means everyone is a producer. Even trade unions, whose members may be among the more vulnerable of consumers, tend to focus on the interests of their members at work in their capacities as employees and workers, rather than their often conflicting interests as consumers, and one would assume that trade union representatives in the Owen Senate would have the same narrow preoccupation. We see this today with the EU Commission and our old friend Peter Mandelson desperately trying to protect a handful of high-cost and uncompetitive textile firms in Spain, Portugal and Italy against competition from China and elsewhere in Asia, and doing it not just at the expense of thousands of poverty-stricken Chinese textile workers but also at the expense of millions of consumers in Europe who are being forced to pay more than they need to for their clothes — not to mention the penalty also being imposed on European clothing retailers. Yet it’s hard to see how consumers as such are going to have their interests effectively represented in a second chamber whose composition almost compels it to put narrow sectional interests before the interests of the community as a whole. Another argument for continuing on the traditional and almost universal basis of geographical rather than occupational representation?

    (PS: I don’t recall that our conversations over the breakfast table were all that interesting!)


  7. Very interesting reading! I’d been thinking pretty much the same thing for a few years now.

    I would not enable the new Lords to vote down the Commons, though. The current balance of power between the Commons and Lords seems almost right (although I would like to see PR in the Commons, or at least a single transferable vote), but we do need a louder ,more accessible and more widely informed debate in the upper house. It should be able to clearly voice a wide representation of different public views.

    As a monarchist (the only current alternative to a self-serving, party politcal president/dictator) I’d also keep the historic title of Lord/Lady (it’s only a word) and have an investiture ceremony for new incumbants – complete with robes, coronets etc. I know, I know, it’s silly and childish, but most people in this country like a good bit of theatre and it might encourage more interest in politics. I’d certainly like to see Mrs. Miggins, the lollypop lady with 25 years service being made a Lady whilst dressed in fake ermine and gold headgear (no, honestly it would be entertaining – a bit like the Lord Mayors show – slightly embarrassing, but uniquely British) and I bet she’d love to call herself Lady Miggins of Canning Town when she goes to Magaluf on her hols!

    In a similar vein, the various non-geographic constituencies could call themselves “Royal” if they wished (ie Royal Trade Union of Miners) – well if the monarch is supposed to be Head of State she should represent all our interests! As part of the investiture the new representative should be made to swear an oath saying that they will endeavour to represent the interests of every citizen irrespective of the organisation that they represent. The point of filling the House of Lords with professionals would be primarily to ensure informed debate, not partisan voting.

    To keep the Commons happy we could throw them a bit of responsibility by asking them to review these “royal” charters every year – how representative they are, how organised etc. That way the organisations would have to keep themselves on their toes too. There should be a stipulation that a balance is maintained at all times, so that for every trade association protecting the rights of owners and shareholders there should be a trade union protecting the rights of workers. This would hopefully ensure fair debates.

    Anyway, good to see this line of thought being expressed on the web. Thanks.


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