An elected House of Lords wouldn’t just be a clone of the House of Commons

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 10th September 2019

The Electoral Reform Society has long campaigned for the House of Lords to be abolished and replaced with a new modern, fairly elected democratic second chamber. We also want to see the one ‘democratic’ chamber we have reformed as well. Is there an inconsistency there? If the House of Commons is so bad, why make the House of Lords more like it?

Thankfully, there is not just one model of how a democratic chamber should be elected or operate. Around the world there are plenty of parliaments we can learn from, and there is no reason why an elected House of Lords would be a clone of the House of Commons.

A different job to do

Firstly, it is important to note that the House of Lords has a different task to play from the Commons. Even if they were both elected, the chamber would be performing a different role. Local councils are elected, but nobody calls them clones of the Commons. Everybody gets jobs via an interview process, yet then go on to do different tasks.

The House of Lords is officially tasked with scrutinising and revising legislation, as well as checking and challenging the government. The House of Commons is source of the government and has special exclusive powers over income, expenditure and taxes. But, in practice, the House of Lords’ essential functions have been restrained by the chamber’s lack of democratic legitimacy, which has made it at times too fearful to scrutinise and challenge the government effectively.

Different electoral arrangements

Secondly, a new elected second chamber could use different electoral arrangements to differentiate itself and aid in its task. The whole purpose of the second chamber is to scrutinise the government, rather than form one – so we would want to encourage independence.

An electoral system like the Single Transferable Vote (STV) which is both proportional and has direct election of individual – and independent – candidates would be ideal.

In the event of the House of Commons also being reformed to use STV, longer terms could be used in the new second chamber. This would mean that members would not be subject to the constant threat of election and short-term policy-making which characterises MPs’ work. This would incentivise them to adopt a longer-term focus and allow them to ignore the party-line where necessary.

We would also want to preserve the House of Common’s primacy, so partial replacement could be used to ensure the Commons always has a fresher democratic mandate. If members of the second chamber had 10-year terms, half could be elected every 5 years along with the House of Commons. Members of the second chamber would be much more legitimate than they are now, but MPs would always be able to point to the fact that they were elected most recently and represented a fresher expression of public opinion.

Cutting the membership down is also key – our current House of Lords is bloated yet fails to reflect the diversity of the UK. Members of a reformed second chamber could represent areas larger than the Commons’ constituencies (such as the UK’s nations and English localities), acting as a forum where regional interests, rather than just local demands, are represented, discussed and addressed.

Regional and national representation

Thirdly, regional representation could go further – a democratic second chamber does not have to be elected nationally. Members could be elected to represent devolved parliaments or local authority areas. A group of MSPs could be elected to sit together in the second chamber, along with AMs, MLAs and councillors in England. The second chamber could then become a forum where all the parts of the UK can be represented and debate policies that affect the constitutional make-up of the UK.

Abolishing the House of Lords and creating a new second chamber would give us many opportunities to improve parliament’s ability to scrutinise the government. Institutions with a strong democratic mandate can speak up with greater clout and legitimacy. That means a democratic second chamber would put pressure on the Commons to follow suit and become more legitimate and more democratic. It is a virtuous circle: more democracy, in turn, leads to more democracy, as voters become empowered and raise their voices – this time knowing they’ll be heard.

For more information on a directly elected second chamber, read our report Direct Elections for a Reformed Second Chamber
For more information on a territorial second chamber read our report Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division.

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