Why an elected second chamber won’t lead to gridlock

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 19th February 2024

Looking across the Atlantic at America’s Senate, it’s clear why concerns are often expressed that an elected second chamber may challenge the primacy of the House of Commons and at the extreme end, result in gridlock.  

Whilst Commons primacy is secured in the formal procedures of Parliament, the argument is that a more democratically legitimate chamber may become more assertive and may be more inclined to use its powers to thwart the government’s legislative programme or prevent it altogether.

Challenging the assumptions 

This argument needs unpicking not least because electing the second chamber doesn’t itself lead to more conflict. Rather there are a whole range of factors including the distribution of powers, the methods for resolving disputes, and conventions, that affect the relationship between the houses and the progress of legislation.   

It is also useful to make the distinction between disagreement over legislation and terminal gridlock. Whilst bringing the government to a halt should be avoided, it is important that in a bicameral system, the second chamber has the ability to ask the government to think again.   

Could the House of Lords bring the government to a halt? 

Gridlock of the type that would bring the government to a halt would be prevented under arrangements that mirrored the current balance of powers (as most reform proposals have suggested). Prior to the 1911 Parliament Act, it was possible for the Lords to do so by refusing to pass supply bills, thus denying the government funds. The 1911 Act ensured that money bills were exempted from the Lords’ delaying powers to prevent this from happening.   

If the current balance of powers are maintained with an elected chamber, even with a more assertive second chamber, complete paralysis of parliament would be unlikely. Gridlock of this nature is usually the result of the designation of powers not the composition of the House.  

The US Senate is an example of where designation of powers and composition combine to make gridlock more likely. The US Senate is a powerful chamber within an, often polarised, two-party system – created by using the majoritarian elections for both chambers.  

Australia is another frequently cited case. Australia has a directly elected senate, elected using STV-PR. But the Australian dispute resolution process is highly unusual in that disagreement can (after three attempts to pass) lead to simultaneous dissolution whereby both Houses are dissolved and new elections held. Simultaneous dissolution has however, only occurred seven times since federation at the turn of the last century. Most other elected chambers have dispute processes more familiar to the UK, such as delay and shuttling amendments, and some use joint committees and sittings to resolve disputes.   

Neither the powerful bicameralism of the US nor the double dissolution arrangements of Australia is being suggested for the UK. 

A better way to resolve disputes?  

Disagreement over legislation is a different type of conflict to gridlock – one which can delay but not terminate a government. Whether a more assertive second chamber would use the suspensory veto more frequently is often raised as a concern, which may warrant a review of the length of this delay and the current methods of conflict resolution. But rather than deny our upper chamber greater democratic legitimacy on the basis it might be more assertive, we should consider why current dispute resolution mechanisms might be inadequate to the task of resolving difference between the chambers.  

After all, having a second chamber to provide a check on government should also mean enabling it to do just that. 

Long-running debates around gridlock can actually lead to it – gridlock in getting the fundamental reform of the House of Lords that we need. With so many examples to learn from around the world, and years of experience in the UK, this is one area of discussion that doesn’t have to result in… gridlock.     

Our new report on reform of the House of Lords, Unfinished Business, looks in more detail about how this could be achieved.

You can support our research work around the House of Lords by becoming a member of the Electoral Reform Society

Join the ERS today

Read more posts...