Many countries use a bicameral political system – meaning that they have two chambers in their parliament. These parliaments are comprised of a lower house where the government is formed and day-to-day politics is carried out, like the House of Commons, and an upper house that scrutinises and revises legislation, like the House of Lords. Upper houses are sometimes referred to as second chambers or senates.
But while all lower houses in democracies share broadly similar functions and are elected with an equal as possible ratio of voters to representatives across the country, the same is not true of upper houses. Not only do they vary in terms of powers and functions, from the powerful Senates of Italy or the United States to the weak and overridable House of Lords or Austrian Federal Council, but the methods by which they are chosen differ enormously.
||Australia, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, United States.
||Czech Republic, Poland, Romania.
||France, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovenia.
||The United Kingdom.
Some Upper Houses are directly elected
One way that an upper house is chosen is through direct popular election, though usually with a different method to that used for the lower house.
A common change in method is a different voting system. Australia, who use the majority-based Alternative Vote to elect their House of Representatives, use the proportional Single Transferable Vote to elect their Senate. While the Czech Republic, Poland, Spain and Switzerland all choose their upper houses with a non-proportional voting system in contrast to their proportionally elected lower house. There are also some, like Italy or Japan, that use the same voting system for both chambers, with some small adjustments.
Many directly elected second chambers, including Australia, Spain and Switzerland, have followed the US’s model of giving subnational units (states, provinces, etc.) equal representation regardless of population. This is designed to give less populous units a stronger voice and prevent their interests from being overridden by more populous areas. But ‘territorial representation’ can be done by other means. The Italian Senate is focused on regional representation, but it is done in proportion to population.
Elections to upper houses usually take place at the same time as elections to the lower house. Some do have longer terms, but it is by no means a universal feature. Many of those that do achieve longer terms by electing only a portion of the chamber at each election as in Australia, the US, the Czech Republic or Japan – though the latter two are elected on a different cycle to their respective lower houses.
The obvious reason for directly electing the upper house is to give it a greater level of democratic legitimacy, which enables it to better assert its own authority. It is thus not surprising that most of the more powerful upper houses are directly elected – especially those that are ‘incongruent’, i.e., have a substantively different partisan make-up to the lower house.
But the legitimacy gained through popular election is often lost through the method of election. Equal representation for subnational territories may give smaller areas parity to larger ones, but it can give a minority of the population a veto over a much larger majority – in the US Senate, small, largely rural states with one-sixth of America’s population have the same representation as the remaining five-sixths. Using a plurality or majority voting system over a proportional one also makes the chamber less representative and thus lessens its democratic legitimacy.
Upper houses that use indirect election
The other common method of choosing upper houses in Europe is through indirect election by subnational political units – often state or regional parliaments (e.g., Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands), but sometimes lower-level bodies like local councillors (France). The purpose of such chambers is often to directly represent and protect the interests of regional governments at the national level.
Although indirectly elected chambers lack the direct mandate of a popularly elected one, they are still chosen by directly elected politicians and, given the design and purpose of such political systems, it is best to think of their mandate as an extension to the one given to the regional parliaments. Most indirectly elected chambers are also appointed proportionally – both in party and population terms – avoiding some of questionable methods used to choose some directly elected upper houses.
Unlike directly elected chambers, which are often relatively powerful, there is little consensus on the strength of indirectly elected chambers. Austria’s Federal Council is very weak – other than on certain constitutional matters, it can only delay legislation as the lower house can simply override it with a simple majority vote. The Dutch Senate, on the other hand, has a full veto over the House of Representatives that cannot be bypassed.
Given the powers and purposes of upper houses vary so much, it is unsurprising that there are some election methods that don’t fit neatly into two categories. There are hybrids – such as the Spanish Senate, which combines direct and indirect election. The ‘unusuals’ – like the Irish Seanad, which is part indirectly elected ‘experts’, part Prime Ministerially appointed, part elected by graduates. Then there’s Germany’s Bundesrat which, although sometimes grouped with indirectly elected chambers, is appointed through state governments rather than state parliaments.
There is also the Canadian Senate, which, being entirely appointed by the Prime Minister, is probably one of the most similar to Westminster’s House of Lords. It does, however, have a fixed size of 105 and a mandatory retirement age of 75, meaning a new Senator can only be appointed when a vacancy arises. New appointments must also be made on a regional basis – with each state holding a fixed number of seats. Though there are still calls for reform, the Canadian Senate is at least not ever-expanding in size and is not dominated by certain parts of the country like the House of Lords.
And there are, of course, some countries that simply choose not to have an upper house, instead opting for a single legislative chamber. This is called ‘unicameralism’, in contrast to bicameralism, and is typically the case in smaller countries, such as New Zealand, where there are no strong subnational identities or powerful regional governments.
All 82 Free Democracies
|Directly Elected (15)
||Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Palau, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, United States, Uruguay.
|Indirectly Elected (7)
||Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Namibia, Netherlands, Slovenia.
||Antiqua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Germany, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom.
||Andorra, Botswana, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ghana, Greece, Guyana, Iceland, Israel, Kiribati, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Nauru, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Suriname, Sweden, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tunisia, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.
Parline classification of principal method of delegation of upper house in the 82 countries classed by Freedom House as Free Democracies.
A Democratic Second Chamber for the UK
Around the world, countries have found different solutions to balancing democratic legitimacy and the powers of their second chambers. While the exact way the upper house is filled varies quite significantly from country to country, the one commonality between nearly all Western second chambers is that they are designed in some way to represent subnational units, be they states, provinces or regions, at the national level.
Britain remains the odd-one-out. It lacks the democratic legitimacy afforded by elections, whether direct or indirect, virtually nullifying the extent to which it can successfully exercise its scrutinising and revising functions. And it completely fails to represent the UK in all its diversity, overrepresenting some territorial units (especially London and the South East) to the detriment of the other nations, regions and localities.
Instead of a house of powerful regional representatives, we have an antiquated chamber whose membership is chosen partly by aristocrats, partly by the Church of England and largely by Prime Ministers rewarding donors and allies. We need to reform our upper house so that it can have the democratic legitimacy to do its job properly.
Sign our petition for a democratically elected House of Lords