We need to bring democracy back to life. Let’s start with the House of Lords

The events of this week were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world.

The events of this week were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world

In a parliamentary democracy, the idea of a second chamber to revise primary legislation and to take a longer view than the main chamber sounds good in theory. And indeed, in the UK we are served by some distinguished legislators who sit in the House of Lords.

The problem is that no matter how hard they work and how effective their interventions might be, none of it can mask the lunacy of the way the House of Lords is constituted.

We’ve seen it again this week on two fronts. Firstly, the prime minister appointed an additional four peers. So as not to upset the gender balance, he was careful to choose three men and a single woman – thus ensuring the 75:25 split in favour of men in the Lords was preserved. One of his appointments appears to have been made in response to the politics of the day – in this case, immigration issues.

So a lawmaker is ennobled to help with the ‘optics’ of current politics. It’s all high-principled stuff.

Next we saw one of the more quirky aspects of an institution with more than its fair share of quirks: an election for a hereditary peer. There are still 90 places in the Lords reserved for people who have as their qualification for a peerage the mere fact of their birth.

So a micro constituency supplies the only people who are actually elected to the second chamber. To be a candidate one must descend from the aristocracy. It would be impossible to make this stuff up.

Despite the heroic efforts of the political class to thwart reform, changes to the House of Lords are inevitable for two reasons.

Firstly, size. In its report The Super-Sized Second Chamber, the Electoral Reform Society pointed out that the House of Lords was second in size only to the People’s Republic of China, who on last checking had a slightly larger population than the UK With so many political appointments of life peers having been made, the number of people eligible to sit, vote and claim the £300 tax-free allowance per day is 849 (minus a small number on leave of absence).

Not only are there not enough seats or office space for this huge number of lawmakers, but as former Conservative constitution minister Mark Harper has noted: “If we have one more change of government it is going to have over 1000 members.”

The truth is it will nearly nudge that number anyway when the Dissolution appointments are made at the end of this Parliament. David Cameron’s first three years as PM saw him appoint four times the number of peers than Gordon Brown did in his three years in Downing Street. And pro-rata Mr Cameron has appointed significantly more than Tony Blair.

The second reason why reform cannot be avoided comes from the impact the Scottish independence referendum has had – and will continue to have – on politics. The Westminster club in its current form is no longer seen as holding any credibility for the new politics needed to re-engage citizens. We need a citizen-led Constitutional Convention to bring democracy back to life right across the UK.

All the parties (and we are now in an age of five- if not six-party politics) have signalled their support for such a move, with the exception so far of the Conservatives. And it is difficult to see how the House of Lords can be left out of that conversation.

Scotland showed us that where the issues are relevant and real and where every vote counts, citizens have a deep desire to be part of their democratic future. The events of this week relating to the House of Lords were yet another reminder of how far behind Westminster is in adapting to the new world.

Darren Hughes is deputy chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. He was a New Zealand Labour MP and minister in Helen Clark’s government

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33 Responses to “We need to bring democracy back to life. Let’s start with the House of Lords”

  1. Carl Gardner

    I disagree. The last thing we need is a Constitutional Convention, whether “citizen led” or not.

    Yes, we have constitutional anomalies that need to be changed. The House of Lords needs changing in digestible bites, like the big bite taken out of it in 1999, I think it was, when the hereditariness were mainly done away with. The obvious next steps are to abolish the remaining hereditariness, and to stop bishops coming in by right. After that, we could see what the consensus was about what should come next.

    What doesn’t work, as Nick Clegg proved, was a “total vision” for perfect and complete reform aimed at pleasing everyone, and that actually pleased no one. One of the reasons a Convention is a bad idea is that it’d be bound to dream up a similar hopeless scheme.

    The other thing that needs doing now, and can easily be done now, is for MPs to implement the McKay proposals, which offer a simple solution to the “English votes” issue. There’s nothing in them Labour need fear, and no need to play for time with a Constitutional Convention. Playing for time is mainly what it’d be about.

    Any Constitutional Convention would be a playground for those who want to sneak things like AV back on the agenda, and who want to ride their own constitutional hobby-horses. It depresses me that Labour is indulging this rubbish.

    Disenchantment with “Westminster” is actually discontent with current public policy – not with our constitutional structures. People in Dundee and Heywood do not vote Yes, or UKIP, because of the House of Lords. Labour needs to understand this, and develop social policies that address the real causes of discontent.

  2. Andy Mills

    My disenchantment with Westminster isn’t just with current public policy. It has much to do with the constitutional structures, which I see as atavistic, class ridden, grossly unbalanced, and anti democratic.

  3. Leon Wolfeson

    The Lords is a massive distraction from far more important issues like PR for Westminster, IMO.

  4. somersetsage

    if we are to have English votes then it needs to be on a similar basis to the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh votes. All of the last three have a form of PR so that decisions are not made by minorities. First past the post might be justifiable in the two party system but we don’t have that any more in England. This means we have to look at the constitution as a whole. it is long overdue and the statute quo is sustained by vested interests.

  5. Ian Duncan

    No, let’s start with the House of Commons, where it really matters.

  6. Sparky

    Will you be switching off all your digital devices for 25 hours?

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    And you’re here spamming away again about controlling others posting Dave/LB. Predictable.

  8. AnthonyTuffin

    Of course the House of Lords should be reformed or abolished (an alternative that Darren has not mentioned), but almost every potential reformer wants to reform it in a different way and, anomalous though it is, it does little harm mainly because we all know it is undemocratic and its powers are very restricted.

    The undemocratic nature of the House of Commons and (in England and Wales) local Councils is far more harmful. They pose as democratic, which they are not, and they have real power.

    I thought reform of the Commons would be on the back burner for several years following the result of the 2011 referendum about AV, but Scottish devolution and the West Lothian Question have put it back on the agenda.

    If the Commons was elected by STV, it would be more representative. In particular, the Labour Party would be less dependent on Scottish MPs and the Conservative Party would be less dependent on English MPs.

    In some ways, the case is even stronger for reforming local government in England and Wales to bring it up to the standard of Northern Ireland and Scotland. Some Councils are controlled 100%, or nearly 100%, by one party and some have not changed control for decades.

    The Electoral Reform Society has rightly decided that STV for local government should be its top priority.

    Please see http://www.stvAction.org.uk for more information about STV.

  9. sparky

    So you’re not a practicing Jew then?

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m secular, absolutely no secret about it whatsoever, Dave.

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    So basically, the ERS is ignoring the important reforms and is trying to get an unpopular form of PR through.


    (MMP polled far better where allowed as an option in AV referendum polling…)

  12. littleoddsandpieces

    The House of Lords is entirely undemocratic and was abolished by Cromwell by decree back in the 1600s. This was confirmed again by the late lamented Wedgwood Benn.

    Scotland passes laws without the House of Lords, so why not the rest of the UK.

    Starvation has risen 70 per cent since 2010, caused by welfare reform leaving those in work far more than the unemployed and / or disabled / sick and those denied state pension payout at 60 since 2013, with no food money.

    The entirely ‘useless and dangerous’ (to quote Cromwell) House of Lords
    uses up taxpayers money, which includes all those who now starve,
    from the 75 per cent of tax from people to government coming from stealth taxes / VAT, thus giving the poorest the equivalent of a 90 per cent tax rate even though paying not one penny in income tax (only a quarter of taxes gathered).

    Meanwhile, the starving pay for the rich to attend House of Lords at £300 a day, with a subsidised private restaurant, and costing millions to run.

    Now the UK has to pay back over £2 billion by 1 December to the EU, when the UK refused to allow the EU to subsidise the food banks in the UK, that government deny the bulk of surplus food, throwing it either to landfill or burnt whilst still edible.

    Find out more on my personal website:

  13. swat

    We could follow the example of the USA and have a Senate of 100, all elected.
    And a State or Regional Govt for the 5 Regions of England plus NI Scotland and Wales.

  14. AnthonyTuffin

    MMP (aka AMS) isn’t a too bad a system if all you want is PR, and you don’t mind increasing the power of political parties and creating two classes of MPs or Councillors, but those who understand voting systems know that STV is considerably better.

    STV decreases party power and increases voter power. STV maximizes voters’ choices and there is only one kind of MP or Councillor with STV.

    Visit http://www.stvAction.org.uk if you would like to know more about STV.

  15. Asteri

    One way it could be reformed is by not appointing celebrities off b**l s**t reality TV shows to sit in it, like Alan Sugar and Karen Brady. Imagine if Donald Trump was just appointed to the US senate for life, this is the state of modern Britain.

  16. Andrew Turvey

    They aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s make progress wherever we can!

  17. Andrew Turvey

    The House of Lords has been reformed radically in the last 100 years not through bold blueprints but via incremental reform. More of this is needed. The logical next step is to deal with the size issue with 2 changes:
    1. Allow the creation of “term peers” who serve only a set period (eg 2 parliaments)
    2. Allow the HoL to retire off certain long serving, poor attendance peers (various mechanisms have been proposed)

    These two changes, alongside ending hereditary elections, would be achievable, significant and thoroughly worthwhile.

  18. Andrew Turvey

    If you give the PM the power to appoint, you can’t then tell him/her who they are allowed to choose

  19. Andrew Turvey

    And in 100 years we will still be talking about it

  20. Asteri

    Firstly, they should not have the power to appoint who ever they want into the upper house. Second, it proves how much things have regressed, that you have to appoint people of the telly to show the masses that you are appointing someone they recognise to prove ‘you’re down with it’. We might as well appoint Noel Edmunds and Jeremy Clarkson because they also present rubbish tv.

  21. Leon Wolfeson

    Let’s see;

    Wikipedia – Second line; “AMS is sometimes confused with the mixed member proportional representation system”


    Your propaganda is just that, there’s plenty of arguments on both sides, but the reality is that MMP tends to be selected when there’s a move to PR in other countries for very good reasons.

    You are pushing a one-sided propaganda site, rather than having a debate, as you make empty statements without backing on STV, and I find your proposal that party leaders etc. must also tend a constituancy (or rather, to be to busy to do so) is a drawback which we already see, and which I would fix.

    Nobody worries about “two-class” MP’s in Germany or New Zealand, it’s not on the radar of political issues.

  22. AnthonyTuffin

    The “very good reasons” that countries have tended to adopt mixed list systems like MMP and AMS are that political parties have supported them because such systems increase party power. STV decreases party power and increases voter power.

    With STV, citizens can vote for any candidate they wish without fear of wasting their vote. The transfer system ensures this.

    With STV, Conservative voters can show whether they prefer (for example) a pro-EU or an anti-EU Conservative MP without voting against the party.

    Having two classes of representatives in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly has been very controversial issue. There is only one class of representative with STV.

    You are right that my site, http://www.stvAction.org.uk, exists to promote STV. That is because STV is the best voting system yet invented.

  23. Leon Wolfeson

    STV does nothing of the sort, of course, it leads to complex forms of tactical voting which are pointless under MMP.

    Your constant copy/paste propaganda, blind of any of the drawbacks and your unwillingness to engage in debate really is defining you here.

    STV keeps the current “coalition” parties, where nobody is very happy with policy, and MP’s of course tend to end up voting as their party demands. MMP leads – as seen in Germany and New Zealand – on the other hand to the major political groupings being reflected in the parties, and giving the left and right a coherent voice rather than being small and usually irrelevant wings of Coalition “Parties”.

    And your constant insistence that people be badly represented locally by busy party leaders…well…

  24. AnthonyTuffin

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! I nail my colours to the STV mast just as you nail yours to the MMP mast.

    I am trying to debate with you but you seem more interested in insulting me.

    I am not advocating proportional representation generally. I advocate a form of choice voting (STV) that happens to be proportional and is best for voters for many reasons, but especially because it maximizes their choices. MMP restricts their choices

    I don’t know whether you misunderstand STV or deliberately misrepresent it. The fact is it makes representatives far more responsive to voters than MMP or any other system does. Therefore, they are less – not more likely – to vote as their parties demand.

    As for tactical voting, it is virtually impossible with STV so, far from being a disadvantage of the system, is an advantage.

    Your accusation that I constantly insist that people would be badly represented locally by MMP is totally false. I don’t usually think MMP is worth discussing so I don;t spend much time on it. I am discussing it now only to educate other readers who might otherwise be taken in by your propaganda.

    I don’t doubt that citizens could be reasonably well represented by Councillors or MPs elected by MMP, but they would be much better represented if we had STV.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    You are not debating, you are copy/pasting and linking to a one-sided site.

    Of course you’re determined to get your way and are not willing to accept any PR is better than FPTP, I get it. Stopping reading now, this is pointless, since you are determined not to see any of the drawbacks to STV, which is THE system for tactical voting.

  26. AnthonyTuffin

    Although Mr Wolfeson seems to have abandoned the discussion, I’ll comment for the benefit of any other readers who may wonder whether he has a point.

    He is half right that any PR is better than FPTP. Any PR is fairer between parties and committed party supporters than FPTP and, to a limited extent is fairer between voters generally.

    However, all PR systems except STV increase party power and reduce voter power. STV, by contrast, decreases party power and increases voter power.

    THE system for tactical voting is actually FPTP and it is possible to some extent with most systems. I repeat that tactical voting is almost impossible with STV and I note that Mr W has not explained how to vote tactically with STV.

    Mr w is also a little bit right to say that STV has drawbacks, but he has not named any genuine ones and it has fewer drawbacks than any other system yet invented.

    Incidentally, he accused me of copy/pasting, but he has not said what I have copied or from where. That’s because I have not.

    I recommend readers to visit http://www.stvAction.org.uk and judge for themselves.

  27. Guest

    There never WAS a debate. Because you won’t enter one. You are a whiner, not winner.

    That you refuse to admit STV’s problems really shows your views here – you’re not here to debate, you’re here to effectively support FPTP by turning people off PR.

  28. Guest

    Your fixation on the Lords, when commons voting reform would go a long way to fixing that, and Lords reform would do to little to nothing…

  29. Guest

    “Firstly, they should not have the power to appoint who ever they want into the upper house.”

    They don’t. They have the power to appoint anyone they want to the cabinet, and this is how it’s been here for as long as we’ve HAD a Prime Minister – no “regression” involved.

  30. Leon Wolfeson

    You’ll only get people to care about a few major issues, and the important ones should come first. PR for the commons is vastly, vastly more important.

  31. AnthonyTuffin

    I rest my case. I shan’t convince you, but I leave others to judge for themselves.

  32. Guest

    Like you left me? Right.

  33. AnthonyTuffin

    I sympathize with you but, as Andrew Turvey has remarked,
    they are not mutually exclusive so let’s make progress where we can.

    There are five reasons in particular that most reformers are giving a higher priority now to local elections in England and Wales than to the House of Commons:

    We have to convince
    MPs to change the voting system for the Commons or local Councils but Turkeys
    don’t vote for Christmas so let’s ask the MPs first to change local

    the Scottish referendum, the West Lothian Question and the growth in UKIP
    support have helped to put reform of the Commons back on the agenda, the
    AV referendum is still quite fresh.

    Scotland and
    Northern Ireland already use STV for local elections very successfully so
    there are good precedents and we are only asking for England and Wales to
    be brought up to their standard.

    At least control of
    the Commons changes from time to time with FPTP and, whichever party or
    coalition is in power, there is a reasonable opposition. Some Councils never change hands with
    FPTP and, in some, the majority is so large (although not justified by the
    popular vote), that the opposition is ineffective.

    Many Council seats,
    especially in rural areas are so safe that they are not even contested. STV would stop that in England and Wales
    like it has already done in Scotland.

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