Andy Burnham’s identified the right problem – but his solution falls short

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 10th August 2015

Try as the political class might, calls to reform the House of Lords always come to the fore. So it’s no surprise that the issue has been on the agenda again for the past week. And now, it seems, it’s made it into the Labour leadership debate, too.

By the standards of other policy announcements, it wasn’t the most radical. But last Thursday’s manifesto launch by Andy Burnham featured a section on political reform. And the part on sorting out our broken upper chamber was, well…interesting.

Burnham’s idea is for ‘a system of indirect election for the Lords based on votes cast at the last election’. It’s an idea pioneered by singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, and has been picked up by some as a half-way house between an actually-elected upper chamber and the bloated unelected mess we have now.

Of course, any reform is an improvement. We have the second largest upper chamber in the world (after China’s) and the only fully-unelected second house in Europe. The fact that Peers can claim £300 a day – tax-free – for just turning up is of course a recipe for dodgy practices and inefficiency. And with Peerages for life, and 800 voting members (with more on the way later this summer), it’s pretty hard to exert any influence or accountability on our ermine-coated Lords.

The problem is however, the Burnham-Bragg policy of using people’s First Past the Post votes at a general election to decide how many ‘Senators’ each party gets in another chamber altogether is also a recipe for disaster.

Firstly, this is still massively disempowering for the public. The lack of accountability by certain individuals which we’ve seen in the upper house will be left unresolved. Why? Because under the ‘closed list’ system, it is parties who decide who will make it into the semi-new Lords. Errant members will not be able to be removed by the voters through their First Past the Post constituency vote. They’d just have to hope that the parties didn’t stick them high up the list again.

Of course, that’s assuming voters know who would be on the closed regional lists of what are essentially party appointees. Your ballot wouldn’t say any of the names of these would-be Senators – you’d just be voting for your MP, and hoping that the parties’ choices for the Lords based on that vote wouldn’t be full of washed-up ex-MPs and party donors. Which, let’s face it, they probably would.

Secondly, it’s trying to do too much with one vote. When you vote for an MP, the likelihood is that you don’t want to also be voting for a Lord with that one vote. What if voters want a Green Peer and a Labour MP? What if they want a UKIP MP and a Tory Peer? They would have no recourse under this system to split their ticket. Again, they are disempowered.

But it could also have a big impact on General Election results for the Commons – what if people start voting differently for their MP because they now have to take into account that indirect upper chamber ‘vote’?

Thirdly, this is a partisan stitch-up. What role is there for independents in this new revising chamber? Crossbenchers would become a thing of the past – how do you indirectly elect regional non-partisan legislators based on a constituency MP vote? The new Lords would instead be entirely tied to parties, with all the ramifications when it comes to loyalty over principle.

Finally, this could end badly for scrutiny. Unlike having an open election of individual candidates, individuals in the revising chamber could be simply Yes-Men and Women picked by the parties for their loyalty. It’s bad under the current system of course, but the ‘Secondary Mandate’ plan isn’t much better either.

Not only that, but our revising chamber shouldn’t go off General Election results – if we want proper scrutiny it’s election – indirect or otherwise – should happen in-between Parliamentary cycles to ensure that there are always checks and balances in terms of composition.

It’s positive that Lords reform is back on the agenda. But we shouldn’t just tinker around the edges with unworkable and complicated plans like Mr Burnham’s latest announcement. We need real reform in the upper house: a fully-elected second chamber. Only then can we get real democracy in our politics.

This piece was first published by the New Statesman’s Staggers blog

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